Can Microsoft Do the ISO Limbo?

As the clock ticked off this week, two more nations filed last minute appeals to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), asking that the world standards body rescind its recent adoption of Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML).

That brings the total number of ISO members who are requesting OOXML’s rejection to three – and, until the appeals are examined and dealt with, it leaves OOXML’s status in limbo.

What it means is that OOXML’s induction into the pantheon of ISO standards is put on hold until the appeals wind their way through the ISO process. How long that will be is as yet unknown. On the level of plain old cold cash, however, it means that the battle for billions of dollars in government and corporate technology bids could be held up while OOXML’s standards status is sorted out – held up, that is, for Microsoft, but not for the competing and pre-existing document interchange standard.

Brazil and India both filed just before the 60-day appeals period expired, bolstering the earlier appeal by the South Africa Bureau of Standardslast week.

The South African appeal was all that was needed to suspend publication of OOXML – now known as IS2950 – as a bona fide standard until it is resolved. However, adding two more appeals with at least a few different issues to complain about will undoubtedly draw the process out.

Blocking Microsoft’s Progress

After a hard-fought year of campaigning, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) finally succeeded in getting OOXML ratified as an ISO standard for document interchange on April 1.

Far from an April Fool’s prank, after losing the initial member vote last September, the company succeeded in convincing enough nations to switch their votes that it won standards status comfortably.

Any appeal suspends final publication. However, final certification doesn’t occur until the appeals period runs out, which occurred this week.

“What seemed to be moving in Microsoft’s direction has come to an abrupt stop,” Dwight Davis, vice president at Ovum Summit, told “I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the member [countries] rethink it.”

In fact, Microsoft has seemingly been feeling so magnanimous since it won ISO status that it announced earlier this month that it will provide native support for the competing document interchange formats known as OpenDocument Format or ODF in Office. That support will come in Service Pack 2 (SP2) of Office 2007 in the first half of next year.

At the same time, the company also said that so many changes had been made to OOXML in order to get it ratified by ISO members that it will take until the next major release of Office – codenamed “Office 14” – to roll support for those changes back into Office itself. No date has been given for delivery of Office 14.

Critics have seized on that as yet another argument why OOXML should not be granted final standards status. Their perspective is that it’s obvious that OOXML is too complicated because even Microsoft has to implement ODF first just to be able to claim that it supports any ISO-sanctioned international document interchange standard in the short term. Meanwhile, Microsoft is scrambling to resolve differences between OOXML as implemented in Office 2007 and OOXML as agreed to by ISO voting members.

Appeals Put ‘Standard’ in Limbo

Like South Africa’s, the appeal by the Associação Brasileira de Normas Técnicas (ABNT) primarily addresses procedural issues. Brazil’s submission complains of voting procedure irregularities and being denied time to make presentations during the “Ballot Resolution Meeting” (BRM) in Geneva, Switzerland in late February.

Additionally, Marcia Cristina de Oliveira, the ABNT’s manager for the standardization process, said in her appeal that too few of the changes made in the 6,000 page OOXML specification were discussed during the BRM, a complaint that echoed the South African appeal.

Microsoft critic and open standards advocate, Andy Updegrove posted the contents of Brazil’s letter on his Standards Blog. “With each additional appeal that is filed, one would hope that a review of the process will be found to be more urgent, given the evident unhappiness of National Bodies that attended the BRM in good faith, and left unsatisfied not with the result, but what they had witnessed in the course of a long and frustrating week in Geneva,” Updegrove said on his blog Thursday.

As with South Africa’s earlier appeal, Microsoft declined to comment beyond a standard boilerplate statement.

“This is an issue between ISO/IEC and the National Bodies, so it would not be appropriate for us to comment on this specific situation,” the statement said. (The International Electrotechnical Commission, or IEC, is an ISO affiliated world standards body.)

A copy of India’s appeal was not immediately available but its submission was confirmed by an IEC official, according to several published reports Friday.

In the meantime, OOXML remains in limbo, even after doing the limbo in getting its standards push this far.

Even if Microsoft can hold the line and push OOXML through that final hoop, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean success. A member of the European Parliament recently called for a five-year ban on government contracts to Microsoft due to the loss of its antitrust case with the European Commission in September.

Besides that, the EC continues to investigate Microsoft’s alleged misbehavior during the ISO standards process. Finally, browser competitor Opera Software has also filed complaints against Microsoft with the EC.

Whether any of those moves will ultimately result in bringing down the software giant, however, is anybody’s guess at this point.

“There’s enough antipathy toward Microsoft, from competitors, critics, governments, and even some politicians who have grievances with them [that] there’s inevitably going to be that constant clipping away at the company,” Davis said. “But it’s hard to tell which action is going to blossom into a real threat,” he added.

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