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U.S. Votes for Modified OOXML Standards

The United States has voted for approval of a modified version of the Office Open XML (OOXML) standard for business documents.

The International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) Executive Board is the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1, and casts this country's vote on information technology standards. It is comprised of 17 voting members, including three from the federal government: the Homeland Security and Defense departments and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Final international votes on the proposed standard will be tallied March 29.

The proposed standard failed last year to receive enough votes from 104 participating countries for approval in the five-month fast-track voting process. The United States in that round voted to "approve, with comments," which ensured that its concerns about the proposed standard would be considered in future deliberations.

OOXML is a schema using Extensible Markup Language (XML) to make word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations created with Microsoft products readable by other programs. An open standard for this schema is important because it would enable documents created on one platform to be represented and read accurately by users with different software. It would also ensure that documents would remain accessible over time as the original programs become obsolete.

This issue is critical for governments, which are required to make public records available without restriction to a single software platform, and to maintain them over time. The competing Open Document Format (ODF) already has been approved as an international standard, but adoption has been hindered by the fact that it was not supported by Microsoft Office, a widely used suite of office applications. Adopting ODF would require many organizations to replace their existing applications, and Microsoft complained that adoption would, in effect, lock the company out of that market. Microsoft responded with its own open format, OOXML, with the release of Office 2007 and ISO/IEC put it on the fast track for approval.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) favors the competing document standards, then-NIST director William Jeffrey said last year when the original vote was cast.

"NIST believes that ODF and OOXML can co-exist as international standards," Jeffrey said. "NIST fully supports technology-neutral solutions and will support the standard once our technical concerns are addressed."

Those concerns included:

  • Terms in the standard that are not defined or are inadequately defined.
  • The lack of some normative references, specifying specific versions of other standards being cited.
  • A stronger hash algorithm, such as SHA-256, should be required.
  • Some informative examples are invalid.
  • OOXML uses a proprietary naming scheme.
  • Some requirements do not fully support accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act.

Negotiations to resolve technical and other issues are a fact of life in the international standards-making process and are not necessarily a roadblock to final adoption of OOXML. Comments from national bodies were considered at an ISO/IEC ballot resolution meeting in Geneva and modifications in the proposed standard were adopted.

The U.S. body has voted to approve the modified OOXML standard with 11 members -- including NIST -- voting "yes," four members voting "no," one member voting to abstain and one member not casting a vote.

Approval of the standard requires at least two-thirds of the votes cast by participating nations to be positive, and no more than one quarter of the total number of national votes cast negative. If the final international vote tally is sufficient for approval, OOXML will be published as an ISO/IEC international standard. If the final vote fails, it still could be submitted for consideration again to another ISO/IEC subcommittee.

About the Author

William Jackson is the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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