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OOXML Approved, but Battle With ODF Begins

Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document format was accepted as an international standard, according to an announcement issued today by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The world now has two international standards for sharing office productivity suite files. OOXML is used in Microsoft Office 2007 for sharing Word, Excel and PowerPoint file information. The rival standard, Open Document Format (ODF), is currently used in Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice.org and IBM's Lotus Symphony open productivity suites, among others.

The ISO/IEC decision was determined last Saturday, but leaked yesterday. Official final vote percentages corresponded exactly as leaked: 75 percent of participating international bodies voted positive and 14 percent of participating international bodies voted negative.

ISO's announcement still left room for at least two months' delay in implementation due to appeals: "Subject to there being no formal appeals from ISO/IEC national bodies in the next two months, the International Standard will accordingly proceed to publication."

The vote for ISO/IEC DIS 29500, as it is officially called, was far from messy. Microsoft's proposed specification wasn't approved by ISO/IEC on its first try during a "fast-track" process. There were 3,500 comments on it received at that time. It was subsequently reconsidered during a ballot resolution meeting in February of 2008, with comments reduced to "just over 1,000," according to ISO's announcement.

Outside the process, allegations swirled about voting improprieties, particularly with regard to participating country Norway's vote. A Groklaw article summarized some of the questions about the ISO/IEC voting process, as well as issues unaddressed by the participating international bodies.

Microsoft blogger Jason Matusow attributed much of opposition to OOXML's approval to IBM, which backs the rival ODF standard.

"In some countries, IBM was responsible for more than 90% of the submitted comments, and everywhere they added essentially the same comments to their work in national bodies," Matusow wrote. "They got their wish -- their comments, indeed, 87%+ of all comments, were resolved in the disposition process and the national standards bodies felt that the process had been successful."

I spoke with the Managing Director of the ODF Alliance, Marino Marcich, who painted a different picture about how comments on the OOXML specification were addressed in the ISO/IEC ratification process.

"Actually, over 80 percent of the proposed resolutions that Microsoft and Ecma provided in response to the comments from the national bodies -- over 80 percent of them weren't even discussed," Marcich said. Of 1,027 comments to be addressed about 847 "were not discussed at all," he explained.

One of the big holes not addressed was the issue of backward compatibility, he said.

"OOXML is marked as being able to represent faithfully the older binary documents," Marcich explained. "In fact, although the binary specifications were posted by Microsoft, Microsoft failed to deliver the mapping that basically tells you how to translate an old binary document into XML or how to represent faithfully these binary documents. The net result of this is that if another vendor takes a binary document, basically it will produce different OOXML documents. This is definitely going to break interoperability and prevent the stated goal of OOXML, which is to preserve these legacy documents."

Another problem unaddressed was OOXML-ODF harmonization, "which was proposed by at least five national bodies," Marcich said.

What's worse is that international bodies had just one month to consider revisions to the OOXML standard, and they voted without seeing the revisions, Marcich said. Moreover, the standard hasn't even been published.

"So, OOXML will go down in history, I think, as the first ISO-approved standard that not only wasn't implemented in a single product, but also was voted on without having been seen by the national bodies."

The preservation of legacy document formats is very important to governments, and Marcich said that some governments have already indicated that they plan to proceed with their plans to adopt ODF, citing Norway as an example.

"I don't think it [OOXML's standardization] is going to change any hearts and minds in terms of governments that have already made the move to ODF," he added.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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