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Office 2007 Fails The OOXML Test

Microsoft emerged the victor last month when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) confirmed that the company's Office Open XML (OOXML) specification had garnered enough votes to qualify for standards certification.

However, one ironic drawback remains following Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) efforts to win the votes of ISO representatives: It's now incompatible with Microsoft Office.

According to ISO official Alex Brown, the company's Office 2007 does not correctly support OOXML, even though the formats in OOXML started out as the default file formats for Office 2007. The reason for this appears to be the myriad changes made to the spec to satisfy ISO representatives, encouraging them to change their votes to support the format.

Brown said he determined Office's incompatibility through his own tests.

"[I] thought it would be interesting to validate some real-world content against them, to get a rough idea of how non-conformant the standardization of 29500 [the standards number assigned to OOXML by the ISO] had made MS Office 2007," Brown said in a posting on his blog late last week. He used the 6,000-page specification itself as his test data.

The results? Tests run using a "strict conformance model" yielded some 122,000 errors, Brown noted. A less strict "transitional model" did much better, yielding only 84 errors.

According to Brown, concerns among some of the participating national bodies involved in the standards setting process lead to the transitional version of the specification, which is purposely much more compatible with the original OOXML spec.

"Making them conform to the strict schema is going to require some surgery" to Word 2007, Brown said. "I am hoping that [Microsoft] Office will shortly be brought into line with the 29500 specification, and will stay that way."

"Indeed, a strong motivation for approving 29500 as an ISO standard was to discourage Microsoft from this kind of file format rug-pulling stunt in future," he added.

The disclosure left Microsoft's critics -- and especially supporters of a competing ISO standard, OpenDocument Format (ODF) -- chortling.

"Color me surprised," wrote a poster on the open source and tech legal news Groklaw.org on Monday. "All you folks who voted for [OOXML] need to tell us why you accepted it before it was done. Because what this means is that OOXML was just approved as an ISO standard, on the allegation that it was necessary for interoperability with Microsoft documents, and it turns out it doesn't even do that."

The disclosure comes as an awkward postscript in Microsoft's epic struggle for ISO consideration, which it waged alongside Ecma International, the European standards body that sponsored OOXML.

While OOXML failed to gain enough votes for ratification last summer, furious lobbying and changes to the specification ultimately encouraged enough ISO representatives to change their votes. By late March -- the cutoff for national delegations to switch their position -- OOXML had received the number of votes needed to receive certification.

However, during the run-up to the March deadline, Ecma and Microsoft had made a slew of changes to the specification to convince countries to change their votes in favor of OOXML.

Each change made the format increasingly different from its original source formats in Office 2007.

OOXML won't be changing further anytime soon -- at least, not at the hands of Microsoft. Once ISO accepted the format as a standard earlier this month, Microsoft and Ecma ceded control of OOXML to the standards body for maintenance and further development.

Microsoft officials, meanwhile, have pledged that the company will incorporate the changes back into Office 2007.

"Microsoft is committed 100 percent to supporting the standard [although] it is going to take a while to begin using it in our products," a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com. "Microsoft will also support ISO in the future evolution of this international open standard, and remains committed to working in a collaborative and open way with the industry and standards bodies around the world."

One analyst was taken aback by the sheer number of errors generated by Brown's tests.

"122,000 seems like a pretty breathtaking number," Charles King, principal analyst at researcher Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com.

"Given the amount of heat that Microsoft took [in winning ISO status], it would be in the company's best interests to bring [Office 2007] 100 percent in line ... anything less than a wholehearted effort will be taken as not fulfilling the standards that they've agreed to, from a good citizenship perspective."