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South Africa Appeal Puts OOXML's OK on Hold

You didn't really believe that the epic process of standardizing Microsoft's Office file formats had ended, did you?

Last week, Martin Kuscus, CEO of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), formally appealed the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) ratification of Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Office Open XML (OOXML) as a standard for document interchange.

The appeal puts the format's standards status on hold and possibly in jeopardy.

While unglamorous, getting a set of file formats -- in this case, OOXML, which originated as the file formats for Microsoft Office 2007 -- certified as an international standard can be worth billions of dollars in sales. Without standards status, an increasing number of governmental bodies and companies may reject Office in soliciting bids for productivity application suites.

Microsoft comfortably received enough votes to cement the format's ISO standardization on April 1.

However, the ISO stipulates that if an appeal is filed within two months, the specification's publication as a standard is suspended until the appeal has been decided.

That could potentially kill OOXML's chances for final certification as an ISO standard.

"An appeal would have to be resolved before publication of a document as an international standard," ISO spokesperson Roger Frost told InternetNews.com in early April.

Meanwhile, opponents of OOXML -- now called by its ISO moniker, "IS29500" -- are trying to convince other national bodies to appeal before the two months expire, or at least to change their votes if they had voted for ratification.

In many cases, opposition to IS29500 centers around an existing ISO standard for document interchange –- OpenDocument Format or ODF -- which originated in the file formats of OpenOffice.org and its commercial sibling, Sun Microsystems' (NASDAQ: JAVA) StarOffice.

Criticism for fast-track process

South Africa's complaint -- the first official appeal of the IS29500 standards process so far -- are primarily procedural and are directed at ISO officials.

For example, one complaint in the appeal was that ISO had not published on time a report of a Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) held in late February. Another alleges that decisions were taken during the meeting in some cases without holding formal votes of all participating members, as required.

A potentially more substantive complaint in the SABS's appeal, however, is that the so-called "fast track" process, under which the ISO approved OOXML, was far from thorough.

"South Africa challenges the validity of a final vote that we contend was based upon inadequate information resulting from a poorly conducted BRM," according to a copy of the SABS appeal letter posted online by several Web sites, including the pro-ODF Open Malaysia Blog. "Moreover, we challenge the validity of a process that, from beginning to end, required all parties involved to analyze far too much information in far too little time."

ISO representatives were not available for further comment on the appeal.

Microsoft, meanwhile, said it's staying out of the debate.

"It's our understanding that ISO and IEC [the International Electrotechnical Commission, an affiliated standards body] have a clear process for evaluating and resolving appeals. This is an issue between ISO/IEC and the South African member standards body, so it would not be appropriate for us to comment on this specific situation," Microsoft spokespeople said in a statement.

Also last week, Microsoft announced that Service Pack 2 for Office 2007 will add native support for saving and retrieving documents in ODF formats within the next year.

In the meantime, the company may have its hands full simply ensuring that Office is still compatible with IS29500, following numerous changes in the specification made while convincing ISO members to vote to ratify OOXML as a standard.

Microsoft said compatibility with IS29500 will have to wait until the release of the next major version of its productivity suite, which is codenamed "Office 14". Microsoft has not yet said when that release will ship.