Office Open XML Standards Push Not Dead Yet

UPDATED: Like the Terminator –just when the monster machine seems defeated, it always somehow rises again – Microsoft’s push for international standards status for its Office document formats refuses to die.

Just last week, a committee charged with deciding whether or not to recommend that the U.S. vote in favor of adopting Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) formats when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) considers them in September, deadlocked, leaving the formats’ future as an ISO standard cloudy at best.

Not so, said Microsoft officials. Indeed, since the technical committee was unable to hand up a recommendation, the executive committee with responsibility to determine the U.S.’s response has decided to move forward on its own. So Microsoft’s aspirations remain alive.

In April, ISO began considering whether to ratify OOXML – also known as Ecma 376 – as an ISO standard on a so-called “fast-track” basis. The format, which was ratified as a standard by European standards organization Ecma International in December 2006, seemed like a shoe in at the time.

However, earlier this month, the Technical Committee V1 of the International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) failed to reach a consensus on its recommendation to the INCITS executive board.

During what some V1 committee participants described as a marathon conference call on July 13, the motion of “Approval, with comments” failed by two votes to reach the two-thirds majority required.

Some industry observers saw the impasse as a roadblock to Microsoft’s aims at the time. But it now appears to be more of a slight detour.

At an INCITS meeting in San Jose held the week of July 16, the group decided to send out a ballot to executive board members asking them to vote for “Approval with comments.” The results of that ballot will help define the U.S.’s stance when ISO votes on OOXML/Ecma 376 in early September.

That still doesn’t mean that OOXML will gain the U.S.’s approval, however. The list of executive board member companies and organizations contains some staunch opponents of Microsoft’s plans, including IBM  and Adobe . So it is still possible that a U.S. vote in favor of OOXML becoming an ISO standard will be blocked.

But Microsoft officials are optimistic at this point, especially since the V1 committee also deadlocked on recommending against OOXML, which was another of its options.

“We think it’s very positive that they [the executive board] chose to make the ballot [about the question of] ‘Yes with comments’ since the majority of the technical committee members [were in favor of that option],” Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft told

Why it’s crucial

Ultimately, the September 2 vote by ISO is crucial. Much is at stake for Microsoft, as the OOXML formats are the default storage and retrieval file formats for its 2007 Office System.

That’s where the process becomes politicized, however.

Microsoft’s opponents – mostly supporters of the OpenDocument Format, or ODF, which is already an ISO standard – argue that having more than one document standard will just cause confusion and fragmentation. The point of a single standard is to make it possible for companies and governments to consistently be able to save and retrieve documents, even decades into the future, no matter whose products were used to create them.

That, for example, has been a controversial topic for governmental bodies, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which recently declared its intention to authorize use of both ODF and OOXML. No surprise, then, that has become a rallying point for OOXML critics who see the dual-support as unsound.

But some of those opponents are also competitors, of course, not the least of which is IBM.

“IBM has a lot to gain if OOXML doesn’t go forward,” Kyle McNabb, principal analyst at Forrester Research told “You can look at it as a leverage point for IBM that would make Notes more relevant.”

McNabb’s recommendation? All parties should focus more on the customers.

“For a lot of the enterprises we talk to, this is not on their priority list but, if you ask them are they interested in open document standards, they answer ‘absolutely’,” McNabb said, adding, “The bickering between Microsoft and IBM has turned a lot of them off.”

Of course, even if the U.S. vote goes in Microsoft’s favor, the software giant admits that doesn’t assure OOXML will achieve ratification by ISO. In order for that to occur, two-thirds of the voting “participating” members of the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 must cast ballots in favor, and 75 percent of all member votes approve, Robertson said.

In the end, though, McNabb says Forrester’s analysis is that OOXML will likely make it through the process. “We expect it to be an ISO standard by the mid-point of 2008,” he added.

Perhaps Microsoft should say: I’ll be back.

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