Microsofts Open XML Format Hits Roadblocks in U.S., Abroad

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-02-07

Microsofts Open XML Format Hits Roadblocks in U.S., Abroad

Microsofts goal of getting governments across the globe to embrace its Office Open XML format has hit roadblocks in both the United States and abroad.

In the United States, legislation was introduced in Texas and Minnesota the week of Feb. 5 to mandate the adoption of open document formats that will essentially preserve all documents in an open, XML-based file format that is interoperable among diverse internal and external platforms and applications.

The formats will also need to be fully published without restrictions, available royalty-free and implemented by multiple vendors. In addition, they will have to be controlled by an open industry organization with a well-defined inclusive process for evolution of the standard.

These new legislative moves follow the decision by Massachusetts to switch to the Open Document Format for its official documents, with sources telling eWEEK that even more states are likely to follow suit if these bills pass.

In fact, the ODF Alliance reports that Bloomington, Ind., has already moved to the format, while government leaders from California and Wisconsin have spoken publicly on the value of open standards and/or ODF.

The use of ODF has been a controversial subject in Massachusetts. Click here to read more.

Adding to the bad news for Microsoft is the fact that 19 countries have submitted "contradictions" to the bid to get fast-track approval of the standard by the International Standards Organization.

Andrew "Andy" Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP and the editor of the standards blog, reports that Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Romania, Singapore, Sweden and the United Kingdom have all submitted comments, complaints or formal contradictions to JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1, the ISO/IEC body that is managing the fast-track process under which Office Open XML (now Ecma 476) has been submitted.

India is also believed to have responded by abstaining from voting, in protest over the extremely short amount of time provided to review the 6,039-page specification, he said.

Ecma now has until Feb. 28 to respond with its proposed "resolution" for each contradiction. Once this has been received, JTC 1 will publish the response, accompanied by the text of the contradictions themselves, as submitted by the national bodies.

ODF has already been approved as an international standard by the ISO. Click here to read more.

"At that point, a decision can be made on the next step," Updegrove said. "One possibility would be to permit additional time for the contradictions period—which under ISO/IEC rules could extend for up to 90 days. All in all, not a very auspicious start for OOXML. And not one that bodes well for a very fast fast-track experience."

Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, told eWEEK that there is a competitive situation in the marketplace, with ODF supporters actively trying to stop even the consideration of Open XML as a standard under the ISOs rules. "This is a pure competitive play on the part of ODF supporters like IBM," he said. "There are 103 countries that participated in the ISO process, and each country has a national standards body with the authority to act at the ISO on behalf of that country."

The fast-track process started with a 30-day comment period, during which those national standards bodies could raise perceived contradictions that they feel fundamentally conflict with something the ISO is doing, or has done in the past. The ISO Secretariat then has up to 90 days to seek resolution of these perceived contradictions. After that comes a five-month technical review process, followed by a vote, Robertson said.

"So, as of Feb. 5, we reached the end of the 30-day comment period, and we always expected some comments to come in. What we see is that only a small handful have submitted comments, but we are not in a position to say exactly how many have done that as we respect the ISO process and want it to run its course," he said.

Microsoft and its partners have finished work on the Open XML Translator. Find out more here.

"But what you are seeing now is a lot of hype about the state of the ISOs review of Open XML that is entirely driven by our competitors trying to make a bigger deal out of the comments that have come in than is appropriate," Robertson said. "We will support Ecma as it works within the ISO process to respond to these comments, and we think we will ultimately resolve all of these issues as we work through this process."

Next Page: Is ODF behind the legislation?

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While the proposed legislation in both Texas and Minnesota does not specifically mention ODF, sources say that is the intent.

Legislators in the Minnesota House of Representatives introduced a similar bill in the last session, which stalled. But this latest version is believed to have garnered enough support to pass.

The full text of the Texas legislation can be found here, as a PDF.

A Texas legislative aide, who would only talk on background, told eWEEK that the move was not specifically designed to take aim at any particular company, but rather to ensure that Texas got the biggest bang for its buck in this regard, interoperability is assured and document preservation is protected so there will be no lock-in if support for a particular format is dropped down the line.

Click here to read more about how Microsoft hit back at its Open XML critics.

Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, a group of organizations, governments and companies in 51 countries that promotes and advances the use of ODF as the primary document format for governments, is encouraged by these legislative moves, which he sees as an endorsement of ODF.

"After Massachusetts, the ODF genie is out of the bottle here in the U.S. We are encouraged that Texas and Minnesota seem to be following suit. Governments are intrigued with the notion of guaranteeing access to electronic documents many decades into the future, and for having a variety of cost-effective choices," he told eWEEK.

"Clearly, they also recognize that a standard like ODF, which has the imprimatur of the worlds foremost standards body, is the best way to accomplish this," he added.

On the ODF front, the OASIS standards body approved Version 1.1 of ODF the week of Jan. 29, which makes the format more accessible to those with disabilities. "ODF already enjoys the ISOs imprimatur, widely considered to be key for its adoption worldwide," Marcich said.

Read here about Office Open XMLs approval as an Ecma standard.

Robertson told eWEEK that Microsoft is looking into this proposed legislation and will comment more once it has studied that further. But the company supports customer choice and interoperability and urges governments to also support these, he said.

"In that vein, we encourage them to adopt neutral technology procurement practices so that they have the greatest choice among available technologies, and so encourage competition in the marketplace and get the maximum value out of their IT investments," he said. "Mandating a specific document format for government use reduces a governments ability to communicate with its constituents, make the best use of available technology, and promote competition and innovation in the marketplace."

But the legislation calls for the adoption of open standards in the document format space, and "Open XML already meets that bar, having gone through a rigorous process in Ecma, which controls the standard going forward. All I can say is that there is a lot of hype in this area," Robertson said.

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