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EC Investigates OOXML Process

Microsoft may have won the gold for its Office Open XML (OOXML) file formats last week, but it appears that the company's gung ho push for adoption as a standard has gotten it embroiled in yet another investigation by the European Commission (EC).

Besides a probe begun in January regarding whether OOXML is sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products, an EC spokesperson has now acknowledged that the commission is also looking into Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) tactics in the contentious standard setting process surrounding OOXML.

"In the course of the investigation of the interoperability issues related to Microsoft's products … we have indeed made inquiries with the … national standardization organizations about possible irregularities in the OOXML standardization process," the EC spokesperson said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

The latest imbroglio complicates Microsoft's – and European standards body Ecma International's – efforts to have the company's Office 2007 document formats certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

As of last week, the ISO, which is generally considered the gold standard of standards organizations, announced that Microsoft had garnered enough votes from ISO member countries to ratify OOXML as a competing standard with the already recognized OpenDocument Format (ODF).

This is important because many governmental bodies and corporate IT departments worldwide have begun to insist on ISO certification in order for vendors to be allowed to bid for lucrative contracts. Document format standards have become an especially thorny issue because governments, in particular, need to archive and retrieve official documents for hundreds of years.

That's a large market area where Microsoft doesn't want to be excluded from bidding.

OOXML's exodus began more than a year ago when Ecma ratified it as a standard and submitted it to ISO under so-called "fast track" rules. Under that process, a specification can achieve ISO standards status in a year or less, rather than under the longer, traditional process, that can take years.

In the past year, ODF supporters, critics, and competitors fought to kill OOXML's chances at every step. In fact, in balloting last summer, OOXML fell short of achieving enough votes to reach the winners circle.

However, participating nations had until Saturday, March 29, to switch their votes from Disapprove to Approve. Somehow, Microsoft and Ecma pulled a hat trick and, at the last minute, convinced enough countries to change their votes that OOXML won handily.

At that point, the anti-OOXML forces went into even higher gear than they had been prior to the deadline – alleging that the pro-OOXML supporters had twisted the standards setting process itself – unethically, if not illegally. Since last week, there have been numerous complaints of "irregularities" in the process, some of which have triggered official complaints from some of the participants.

Accusations range from last minute "stuffing" of national committees with pro-Microsoft members, to political moves such as asking anti-OOXML supporters to step down from committees, to approaching ministers of some nations to add impetus to the OOXML push.

However, barring official appeals from the participating countries' standardization committees that participated in the voting, OOXML will be published as an ISO standard in two months. An appeal that throws off the standards process for OOXML, of course, could happen.

In the meantime, the EC, which is the executive branch of the European Union, is ramping up a new investigation into the latest set of allegations against Microsoft.

"It must be stressed that it is not the Commission's intention to influence the outcome of this [ISO] process, but the Commission considers it essential to ensure that European competition law is not violated in the course of the standard setting process," the EC's spokesperson added.

Of course, that's exactly what OOXML opponents would like to see occur. There's nothing like months or years of investigations and litigation by a body like the EC, which is feeling its power after Microsoft settled antitrust charges last fall, to undermine customers' confidence in OOXML's viability as a standard.

"What we have just witnessed with the OOXML adoption process is the catastrophic failure of a system built for one purpose that has been subjected to forces that it was not designed to withstand … including intense pressure from vendors, and even political pressure," read a blog posting by ODF activist and attorney Andy Updegrove over the weekend.

"The tactics … appear to have included taking advantage of rules crafted to foster openness, placing or outmaneuvering committee chairs, and recruiting employers to pressure committee members to vote their employers’ interests rather than their own technical judgment," Updegrove's post continued.

While critics lobby for stern action against Microsoft, that view is not universal. Indeed, some question complainers' motives.

"I understand that Microsoft has a monopoly position [with Office and Windows] but nonetheless, it's interesting to me that the same people that press for this kind of oversight one day will be calling Microsoft a dinosaur the next day on the Office front," Dwight Davis, vice president at researcher Ovum Summit, told InternetNews.com. "

Davis raised a similar question in regard to the EC's latest Microsoft investigations.

"The EC certainly has reason to look at Microsoft, but whether there's a genuine reason for them to weigh in on this [the OOXML process] is an open question," he added.

In a statement e-mailed to InernetNews.com, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company is cooperating with the EC's various investigations.

"We will cooperate fully with the Commission’s investigation and provide any and all information necessary. We are committed to ensuring that Microsoft is in full compliance with European law and our obligations as established by the European Court of First Instance in its September 2007 ruling," the statement said.