OOXML Meeting Wraps Up — Who Won?

Both sides in the Office Open XML (OOXML) debate claimed victory Friday as a key international standards body meeting called to help determine the file formats’ future wrapped up in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ironically, despite the two sides’ posturing, the meeting’s outcome does not directly determine whether OOXML becomes a ratified standard for document interchange or not. Instead, it starts the clock running for countries to change their votes – or not.

[cob:Related_Articles]This week’s meeting was held to resolve issues raised last summer by voting nations when they voted down a bid by Microsoft and European standards body Ecma International to get OOXML certified as a standard by the granddaddy of standards groups — the Organization for International Standardization (ISO). Ecma already approved OOXML as its own standard in 2006 and is the organization submitting the formats to ISO.

Ending Friday, the week-long affair constituted what’s referred to in ISO terminology as a “ballot resolution meeting” or BRM. In attendance: interested nations gathered to discuss proposed changes to the 6,000-page OOXML specification that would mollify their concerns regarding its adoption as a standard on a so-called ‘fast track’ basis – a process that can take as little as five months instead of the years a standard sometimes takes to move through ISO’s more formal, and more protracted, full-scale process to achieve adoption.

Still, the end of the meeting gave both sides – supporters and critics – yet another bully pulpit upon which to claim victory.

Claiming to have received leaked information from inside the meeting, one leading critic disparaged OOXML as having failed to achieve acceptance.

“The OOXML proposed dispositions … were overwhelmingly rejected by the delegations in attendance at the BRM, indicating the inability of OOXML to be adequately addressed within the ‘fast track’ process,” Andrew Updegrove, a vociferous opponent of OOXML and a member of the Linux Foundation’s board of directors, said in a blog entry Friday.

Page 2 of 2

“Only six of 32 delegations in attendance at the BRM voted to approve about 900 out of the more than 1,100 proposed dispositions,” he said.

While declining to provide details due to ISO policies, a Microsoft executive disagreed.

“This week, they [attending ISO members] decided to accept the vast majority of the changes submitted,” Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, told InternetNews.com. Since the ISO has said it will not comment on the outcome of the week’s meeting, it’s hard to evaluate the accuracy of either side’s claims.

But both sides agree the issue of whether OOXML becomes an ISO standard will be determined in the next 30 days.

OOXML is a set of XML file formats that serve as the default formats that Microsoft’s Office 2007 uses to save files. Ecma adopted it as a standard in late 2006, and that body took over guardianship of OOXML – ultimately submitting it to ISO last year under fast track rules.

OOXML has been extremely controversial from the start, especially among Microsoft’s critics and competitors.

For one thing, they argue, ISO has already ratified a standard for document interchange called OpenDocument Format or ODF. Supporters of ODF claim there is no reason for there to be two interchange standards, particularly one they fear will be modified every time Microsoft makes a change to its own version of OOXML to help maintain its massive dominance in the office productivity suite marketplace.

This week’s meeting was the culmination of a six-month period during which Ecma (and Microsoft) tried to address all, or most, of the concerns that were raised by various nations during the balloting process last summer. Of the extraordinary number of issues raised – some 3,500 or so – Ecma was able to eliminate duplicates and winnow the list down to about 1,100 that needed to be addressed.

Trolling for votes

This week’s meeting was meant to try to resolve as many of those remaining concerns as possible. For Ecma and Microsoft, the hope is that enough issues have been resolved at the meeting to motivate several of the nations that had voted against ratifying OOXML to change their votes to affirmative.

In fact, it is the question of changing votes that is actually the deciding issue. Voting nations have 30 days to change their votes now that the BRM is concluded. However, not all the concerns need to be resolved, as ISO documents point out.

Meanwhile, the ISO committee itself had nothing to say this week about what went on behind closed doors at the meeting, which did not allow press attendance. So no official tally of votes as to whether or not to accept the proposed resolutions has been issued or is expected.

However, as supporters, critics, analysts, and the ISO itself pointed out, what it all boils down to in the end is whether enough voting nations change their votes to change the outcome of last summer’s vote.

In the balloting last summer, 87 voting nations participated. Although the rules governing voting and non-voting nations, as well as how to count ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘abstain’ votes, are fairly arcane, Robertson said the number of nations that would need to change their votes to ‘yes’ in order to put OOXML over the top is a relatively small number. Five votes would do it, he said.

That might seem like a small number but it’s far from a done deal.

“[The balloting last summer] was very close and there’s a lot at stake here,” Peter O’Kelly, research director at analysis firm Burton Group, told InternetNews.com.

Getting enough nations to change their votes is tricky, and while Robertson remains confident, there is no guarantee that Ecma and Microsoft will be able to pull it off.

Indeed, O’Kelly isn’t taking bets. “I couldn’t call this one in advance,” he said. “It can go the other way – ask Hillary Clinton about that.”

News Around the Web