Rhetoric Rises as Office Open XML Vote Approaches

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2008-03-20

Rhetoric Rises as Office Open XML Vote Approaches

The war of words between Microsoft, IBM and others with an interest in document formats has reached a boiling point ahead of the crucial vote later this month on whether or not Microsoft's Office Open XML format should be approved as an ISO standard.

The format failed to achieve the two-thirds vote needed for approval as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization in September.

That was followed by a ballot resolution meeting in Geneva this February, designed to find consensus on modifications to the document in light of the comments made by the national bodies that voted.

The question now is whether those modifications have persuaded enough of the national bodies to support the publication of the specification as a standard.

Microsoft fired off the first volley, with Chris Capossela, senior vice president for Microsoft Office, releasing an open letter March 16 in which he said the Open XML standard under consideration by the ISO/IEC has been significantly improved as a result of global feedback and consideration.

He also appears to assume that the specification is headed for approval later this month, saying, "We've listened to the global community and learned a lot, and we are committed to supporting the Open XML specification that is approved by ISO/IEC in our products."

That led to a sharp retort March 19 from Ed Brill, an IBM business unit executive and worldwide sales leader for Lotus Notes, who accused Microsoft of trying to appear "the good guys" in its efforts to take a "heavily modified version of the Office 2007 document formats and get it rubber-stamped as an international standard."

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Brill also took issue with Caposella's claim in the open letter that Novell, Corel, Apple, IBM, Sun and others have already adopted, or announced adoption of, Open XML in their products on a variety of platforms-including Linux, Windows, the Mac operating system, the Palm operating system, Java and .Net.

"This hits at one of the core issues of the Office Open XML saga that I have been highlighting for months. Microsoft claims that the Office 2007 document formats equals Ecma Open XML and therefore that IBM's announced support for Office 2007 document formats in a few products equals support for the format. IBM doesn't support Ecma Open XML.  But whoever expects Microsoft to be clear communicators?" he said in a blog post.

Earlier in the week, Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source, also made it quite clear that the company is completely opposed to having Office Open XML become an ISO standard.

" IBM is opposed to this specification becoming a JTC1 [ ISO/IEC] standard because it was developed in a non-open manner, is ridiculously large, is technically inferior, and emerged from the Ballot Resolution Meeting with most things not explicitly resolved and more questions than ever before. So just in case you were wondering, now you know," he said in a blog post.

Five Months Is Too Short

For his part, Rob Weir, a performance architect at IBM, notes that if the five-month review represented a complete review of the proposed specification's text, by those with relevant subject matter expertise, then IBM would have some confidence that all, or at least most, defects were detected, reported and repaired.

"But I don't know anyone who really thinks the five-month review was sufficient for a technical review of 6,045 pages. Further, we know that Microsoft worked actively to suppress the reporting of defects by the national bodies," he said in a blog post.

Andy Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove and editor of the ConsortiumInfo standards blog, summarized how many people feel about the whole process. The daily events "have become part of the same fractal pattern that has replicated itself over and over since September of 2005, when Massachusetts adopted ODF, putting document standards on many powerful companies' strategic maps," he said.

"Since then, that pattern has spread dramatically, engulfing more companies, affecting more National Bodies in more countries, and invoking more campaigning on both sides. It's all very depressing, as well as predictable," he said in a recent blog post. "And it won't be over until it's over on March 29. Except, of course, it won't be over then, either.  The battle then at hand will simply be the next battle, as the forces withdraw briefly from the field of this last one while the votes are counted."

That is clearly evident in the public comments being made by the different parties about the recent Ballot Resolution Process in Geneva.  Jason Matusow, Microsoft's director of corporate standards, said the meeting was "an unqualified success," while Tim Bray, the director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems, said on his personal blog that "this was horrible, egregious, process abuse and ISO should hang their heads in shame for allowing it to happen."

IBM's Brill called the whole matter "the six-month tragedy that is the ISO process for Office Open XML," and said it should be redone.

"I can only hope, based on everything that has been documented, that it doesn't end with an endorsement of this work.  A lot of clearly smart people have invested a lot of time, money and effort, but that doesn't make it best, good or even right if the decision is driven by calendar and politics. This whole thing should be a do-over," he said.

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