OOXML approval only first step in road to adoption

The practical question for business, government and consumer users of Office and other productivity suites remains: What comes next, and how will they be affected?

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The International Organisation for Standardisation's approval of Microsoft's OOXML as an international standard is just the beginning of what could be a lengthy process before the file format can be widely and successfully implemented for exchanging documents, according to critics and supporters of OOXML.

For some, who have criticised Microsoft's now-successful attempt to fast-track Office Open XML as an ISO standard from the start, it seemed appropriate that the company confirmed OOXML's ratification on April Fools' Day.

But to others -- including Microsoft -- the approval of OOXML was a win for giving software developers and business users, particularly those in government agencies, choice about which standard file format they want to use for exchanging electronic documents.

To Tom Robertson, general manager of Microsoft interoperability and standards, said teh vote proves that "the global community has now embraced Open XML." He said the approval means that OOXML "will be widely used for years to come in every country in the world" as a standard for document exchange.

To some others, however, including open-standards advocates and supporters of Open Document Format for XML (ODF), a rival document format that preceded OOXML to ISO approval, the global community is still not ready to envelop OOXML in a warm and fuzzy hug. The final vote had barely been tallied before there were reports of irregularities and the possibility of national bodies changing "yes" votes due to protests from committee members unhappy with the outcome.

Protests over the ISO voting process and outcomes are not uncommon, said Jan van den Beld, ISO-process consultant for CompTIA and former secretary general of Ecma, who encouraged Microsoft to fast-track OOXML through Ecma to the ISO. This is particularly true because the ISO does not oversee each country's individual standards body and lets the national standards agencies set their own rules for voting on standards. "There's no general set of rules that each country is using," he said.

Still, even by standards voting, the OOXML vote has been particularly contentious, with both sides slinging mud for the better part of two years over first the Ecma, and then the ISO processes.

For example, not even two days after the final voting ended over the weekend, members of the Norwegian committee, which officially changed a previous "no, with comments" vote to "yes," asked that country's Ministry of Trade and Industry to investigate the voting process, claiming that 80 percent of committee members were opposed to a "yes" vote. For the record, the Norwegian standards body Standard Norge defended its vote online Tuesday, a defense Microsoft translated to English and posted at an employee blog.

No matter which side you're on or whom you believe, OOXML is now on par with ODF as an international standard. The practical question for business, government and consumer users of Office and other productivity suites remains: What comes next, and how will they be affected?

Proper implementation of the standard in Office 2007 seems to be a likely next step. Office 2007 is the suite that sparked the war when Microsoft decided to create its own XML-based document format for it and not include the existing ODF technology as a native file format.

Robertson said now that the format has been ratified, Microsoft will begin working on a road map for implementation, although he could not say when that would happen. That's probably because the ISO, which will oversee the standard going forward, still has work to do before the first OOXML specification will be finalised, which most expect will happen sometime before the end of the year.

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