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RealTime IT News

Massachusetts Adopts Office Open XML

Microsoft won a small victory in its strategic campaign to make its Office Open XML (OOXML) file formats into a global standard when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued its expected endorsement of the formats Wednesday.

The acceptance of a two-standard approach came even though the state received 460 comments – mostly negative -- during a three week comment period that began in early July. Massachusetts had previously signed off on the use of the OpenDocument Format or ODF as its primary document standard.

Microsoft's  critics and competitors lobbied hard for more than two years to keep OOXML off the state's list of accepted document standards, but to no avail. The state's IT staff had struggled with the question of whether or not to include OOXML, but the tenor changed when Microsoft got the format adopted by one standards group and applied for standards consideration by another,

"We believe that these concerns … are appropriately handled through the standards setting process, and … we believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised … is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards," said Massachusetts' statement announcing acceptance of OOXML. It was co-signed by Henry Dormitzer, Massachusetts' undersecretary of administration and finance, and Bethann Pepoli, acting chief information officer for the Commonwealth.

Microsoft officials, of course, were pleased.

“The Commonwealth’s decision to add Ecma Office Open XML File Formats to its list of approved open standards is a positive development for government IT users in the Commonwealth," Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards, said in a statement e-mailed to internetnews.com.

Robertson's reference to Ecma International – a European standards group that has already signed off on OOXML as a document standard – is telling. Also known as Ecma 376, OOXML is currently under consideration to be adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). An ISO vote on OOXML is due on September 2. (ODF already cleared that hurdle and has been granted ISO status.)

But Microsoft's ISO effort has also had a bumpy ride and it is not clear that OOXML will receive the votes necessary to achieve standards status when the votes are tallied next month.

Critics, meanwhile, are still smoldering over Massachusetts' decision. On his blog, Boston-based attorney and open standards advocate Andy Updegrove described Wednesday's formal announcement by the Commonwealth as "abandoning the moral high ground of insisting on international adoption."

"Rather than waiting – as little as one month -- to see whether Ecma 376 would be granted [standards] status by ISO … the current administration has opted instead to punt – a substantial and regrettable retreat from the stance that brought OOXML this far along the open standards road," he continued.

Ultimately, Massachusetts' decision to include OOXML may carry more weight with customers than the official seal of ISO's imprimatur carries. Indeed, while gaining standards status from ISO is important, the momentum in the marketplace generated from many smaller wins with customers like Massachusetts may help counterbalance that deficit by reinforcing OOXML's status as a de facto standard.

In fact, file formats are important since they're required in order to assure users – especially governments but also enterprises – that data and documents created today will be accessible for decades into the future. But also important is the ability for users who already know a particular set of productivity applications to not have to switch – along with file translation issues and lost productivity from retraining requirements, argue some observers.

Microsoft has been busily working both ends of that spectrum. Its Office suite has been the de facto productivity applications standard with the vast majority of users worldwide for 10 to 15 years. And in recent years, the company has emphasized Office as more than that – repositioning it as the front end to customers' back-end applications.

This has been highly visible in moves like Microsoft's collaboration with SAP – called Duet – as well as the company's Office Business Applications (OBA) initiative, says one analyst.

In April, Microsoft and SAP announced that they were expanding their efforts because in the first year, they had sold more than 400,000 licenses to Duet, which provides access to an SAP back end via an Office front end.

"[Additionally,] Microsoft's Office Business Applications initiative is one of the things they have done to extend Office … by turning it into the front end for all of these back end applications," Dwight Davis, vice president at researcher Ovum Summit, told internetnews.com. As an example, he pointed out that even longtime Microsoft foes such as Oracle have been working to link up with Office on the front end.

But that doesn't mean the future is assured.

"[Microsoft's] OBA initiative has really taken hold …. [and] it's really hard to displace a de facto standard.," Davis said. But then he added: "There's a lot of truth to that, but I wouldn't downplay the importance of ISO certification."