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Microsoft Office Open XML Sparks Standards Fight

Ecma, an international organization that helps develop standards, has approved Office Open XML (OOXML), and will submit the standard for adoption under the International Standards Organization (ISO) process.

This is a significant milestone for Microsoft because, if the standard is approved by ISO, it will deflect criticism that its software is not standards-based.

The standards issue is particularly important in dealing with governments which do not let their agencies purchase software that is not standards-based.

It would also give Microsoft a greater degree of control over how applications based on other platforms interoperate with its programs.

The news immediately set off a duel-by-proxy between Microsoft supporters on the one hand and its many detractors on the other.

Some of those detractors include organizations which have developed a competing standard, the Open Document Format (ODF), which has already achieved ISO certification.

Sam Hiser, director of business affairs at the Open Document Foundation, which helped create the ODF standard, said that OOXML is "definitely redundant."

Hiser asserted Microsoft is trying to keep control of the document formats. "They're making a very clever gambit to pretend to be making open concessions by adopting an XML standard in the file format design, but it's one that's heavily encumbered by propriety dependencies," he told internetnews.com.

Bob Sutor, who is vice president of open source and standards at IBM, confirmed that IBM voted against adoption of OOXML at the Ecma general assembly today.

Writing on his personal blog, he wrote that ODF "is an example of a real open standard versus a vendor-dictated spec that documents proprietary products via XML."

That posting got heavily commented by Microsoft supporters.

Melanie Wyne, Executive Director for the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC), an IT industry trade organization, weighed in on Microsoft side.

"Today’s ratification of Office Open XML as an open standard ... means consumers will have more choice in the marketplace. Ecma’s action enhances document manipulation, interoperability and archival storage for public and private institutions," she said in a statement.

She also defended OOXML against charges that it is redundant with ODF.

"Though Office Open XML’s detractors decry competition as confusing to consumers, the consensus Ecma vote belies their argument. Having more to choose from, governments and consumers will be better off, period," she said.

According to Ecma, its technical committee (TC45) worked for over a year to provide developers all the technical details needed to ensure predictable results and high fidelity interoperability when working with the standard.

Jan van den Beld, Secretary General of Ecma, explained that the Open XML standard was also designed to be backwards-compatible with older versions of Microsoft Word documents, covering billions of documents.

"The broad spectrum of sponsors from the industry and public institutions ensure the creation of an open standard that can create a wide range of possibilities for document processing, archival and interoperability," he said in a statement.

The Open XML standard also addresses the international language needs of organizations by supporting all the major worldwide languages.

Developers will have the flexibility to decide whether they want to take advantage of subsets or the full feature set of the Office Open XML formats.

In addition the format enables organizations to integrate productivity applications with information systems that manage business processes by enabling the use of custom schemas within Open XML documents.

Going forward, the TC45 will continue to be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the standard, and for enhancing the standard with new and innovative features while simultaneously preserving backwards compatibility.

In January, Ecma International will also begin the fast track process for adoption of the Office Open XML formats as an ISO international standard under the ISO/IEC JTC 1 process.

Microsoft supporters are also making ISO certification seem inevitable.

Hiser said that Microsoft picked Ecma as a forum for ratification because of its close ties to ISO.

But he said he hopes that "ISO will be a little more discerning."

According to Hiser, if Microsoft loses this battle and ODF remains the only internationally-recognized standard document format, Microsoft will have to adopt it in order to continue doing business with many governments.

It will also lose some control over developers and the upgrade process, he said.

"They'll have to find other ways to add value and compete," he said.