U.S. Likely to Reaffirm OOXML Vote

It was about as predictable rain in Seattle.

The committee that advises the U.S. delegation to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which last fall voted to approve Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) bid to make Office Open XML (OOXML) an ISO standard, has decided not to change its vote to ‘disapprove.’

Duh.

“The U.S. technical committee that I chair … has recommended approval of DIS 29500 [OOXML] as an ISO standard,” read a recent blog post by Patrick Durusau, who is chairperson of the technical committee advising the U.S. governing board.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, but then neither are Puget Sound rain storms, which can be a deluge one minute and sunny skies the next. In this case, there is one more level of approval that the U.S. vote needs to go through before its final position is formalized.

“The final U.S. position will be determined by the INCITS Executive Board,” Durusau, said. That is short for the International Committee for Information Technology Standards, which is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

However, the original INCITS vote last summer – which determined the U.S. delegation’s vote to “approve” OOXML at ISO – was 12 to 3 with one abstention. Among the naysayers were IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL).

So it appears highly unlikely that the U.S. vote would change between now and March 29, the cutoff date for ISO members who voted on the standardization proposal to change their votes.

While Microsoft won the U.S. delegation’s yes vote during balloting in September, however, it did not garner enough votes from the other ISO member nations to meet the ISO’s requirements for certification as a standard.

Two weeks ago, the ISO held a so-called “ballot resolution meeting” (BRM) in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the concerns – referred to as “comments” — that were raised by voting ISO members in September. The main outcome of the BRM is that it started the clock running for all of the national delegations that voted on the standards proposal.

They have 30 days from the end of the meeting – which was February 29 – to change their vote from last summer’s balloting. That means those delegations that choose to change their votes only have less than three weeks to make up their minds and notify ISO.

Microsoft has said that it only needs five voting nations to change their “disapprove” votes to “approve” for OOXML to achieve ISO standards status under the accelerated ratification process referred to as “fast tracking.”

At the same time, however, no countries’ delegations have yet announced that they are changing their votes one way or another. Given the enormous amount of resources and time Microsoft has put into trying to get OOXML ratified, company officials must be on pins and needles watching the time tick away.

At stake may be billions of dollars in lost revenues to the software giant should government customers – especially – decide that ODF is the only format they’ll support.

One Standard or Two?

OOXML defines the default file formats for Microsoft’s Office 2007. The company convinced European standards body Ecma International to grant OOXML standards status in December 2006. Early in 2007, Ecma (with Microsoft’s backing) submitted OOXML to ISO and requested it be evaluated using the fast track process, which cuts the time down between submission and ratification from years to five months.

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From the start, however, staunch opponents and competitors of Microsoft – primarily supporters of the pre-existing ISO standard for document interchange among office productivity applications — known as OpenDocument Format or ODF – railed against OOXML. The ODF true believers argue that there is no need for a second document interchange standard, and that even allowing one in the door could defeat the entire purpose of having such a standard in the first place – a single interchange format.

Beyond that, the ODF faithful also accuse Microsoft of using one dirty trick after another to try to assure that OOXML is adopted – in particular by stuffing the delegations of several nations with its own hand-picked supporters, and pressuring delegations to change their votes. Finally, the OOXML is around 6,000 pages, ODF backers say — much too long and complicated to be properly considered in a fast track process. ODF, in comparison, is about a tenth that size.

Somewhat ironically, Durusau also was the editor of the ODF standard and is editing a pending update to that for the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). When ODF was ratified by ISO, it also went through the fast track process – although without all the bumps and spills that OOXML has experienced.

Interestingly, Durusau may be an ODF backer, but he’s pragmatic too, and had some direct words for opponents of OOXML on his blog:

“What is puzzling in this day and age of quarterly reports and returns that any corporate governance structure would long tolerate spite as a business strategy. Or that investors would stay with companies that follow such strategies.

“OpenDocument supporters should be wishing that [OOXML] will be approved along with a new work item to amend it to fix the problems found at the BRM … Any other wish is a walk in a cold rain with a Russian peasant wishing his neighbor’s cow would die,” his post said.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Meanwhile, Microsoft is continuing to promote OOXML — under the presumption that it will win ISO status, or in spite of it if the submission fails. Late last week, in fact, the company announced a new Document Interoperability Initiative.

“The Document Interoperability Initiative focuses on bringing vendors together to promote interoperability between document format implementations through testing and refining those implementations, creation of … test suites, and the creation of templates designed for optimal interoperability between different formats,” according to a Microsoft statement.

Microsoft plans to hold a series of interoperability test labs around the world, beginning in Cambridge, Mass. The labs will include testing interoperability between implementations of OOXML and ODF on “a variety of platforms and devices including Mac OS X Leopard, iPhone, Palm OS, Symbian OS, Linux and Windows Mobile,” the statement said.

Additionally, Microsoft also announced version 1.1 of an open source translator between ODF and Open XML for Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. The company sponsored the project, which will be available from SourceForge.

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