Opponents prepare to take on Microsoft in document format battle

Microsoft faces a tough battle on Monday at a meeting in Geneva that will influence how widely the company's latest document format will be used in the future.

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Microsoft faces a tough battle on Monday at a meeting in Geneva that will influence how widely the company's latest document format will be used in the future.

The outcome of the meeting will be important to the success of Microsoft’s open standards initiative which was announced on 21 February.

Representatives of national standards bodies worldwide will attend the ballot resolution meeting (BRM) held by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). They'll be focused on revising the specifications for Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML), which the company hopes will become an ISO standard.

Although OOXML has already been approved by an industry standards body, Ecma International, the ISO designation is key, since governments look to the ISO when choosing technical standards.

OOXML failed to become an ISO standard during a vote last September, but it has another chance if enough countries can agree on the revisions. Those countries will then have one month to vote on the new specification after the BRM.

But Microsoft faces stiff opposition from companies and industry groups behind OpenDocument Format (ODF), which was approved by the ISO in 2006 as a standard. Those opponents contend that having more than one document standard makes software purchasing decisions harder for organisations.

They are staging their own conference in the same venue in Geneva as the ISO meeting.

OpenForum Europe, an organisation supporting ODF and open standards, has invited prominent OOXML critics and advocates of open standards to speak. They include Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google and Hakon Wium Lie, chief technology officer of Opera, the Oslo-based browser developer.

The timing or venue choice wasn't a coincidence, said Graham Taylor, chief executive of OpenForum Europe. The organisation has also timed its sessions to not conflict so BRM delegates can attend.

Critics are arguing that OOXML is an overly complex standard and favors Microsoft in intricate, technical ways, even though the specification is open.

"We think there are a much wider set of issues that need to be considered by the national bodies when they come to make their vote," Taylor said.

Microsoft believes there is room for more than one standard. "We do not fundamentally believe that you have a uniform single view of technology ... in order to have interoperability," said Jason Matusow, senior director of interoperability, on Wednesday during a company event in London.

Microsoft also cites several projects under way to create translators to move formats from OOXML to ODF, and vice versa. However, Microsoft argues that the features of OOXML, a version of which is now used in Office 2007, are richer than ODF.

After the BRM is over, countries will look at the revisions to OOXML and then cast a vote. To become an ISO standard, a specification must win the support of two-thirds of national standards bodies that participated in work on the proposal, known as P-members. It also must receive the support of three-quarters of all voting members.

During the September vote, OOXML failed, receiving only 53 percent of the voting P-members, below the 67 percent needed. Among voting members, OOXML received only 74 percent, 1 percent short of the mark.

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