Open XML Suffers a Setback on the Road to ISO Ratification

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-07-18

Open XML Suffers a Setback on the Road to ISO Ratification

Microsoft has suffered a setback in the quest to have its Open XML document format approved as an ISO standard.

A vote on July 13 by the committee established to formulate the United States position on whether or not to support the application for ISO approval failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to approve the move.

Tom Robertson, Microsofts general manager of interoperability and standards, confirmed that the V1 subcommittee of the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards, or INCITS, fell shy of the majority needed to pass the motion.

Open XML has been approved as an Ecma standard and submitted for consideration as an ISO international standard. Click here to read more.

While Robertson acknowledged the importance of last weeks V1 vote and the requirement for a super-majority, he was upbeat about the fact that "a clear majority of the participants in the V1 process thought this was the right path to take and voted to recommend ISO ratification of Ecma Open XML."

Robertson also noted that this was the first stage of the process. "You have the technical review, the recommendation is then made to the executive board, which then issues the draft position, which is subject to a 30-day voting period. There may also be another period of review for the final decision in advance of the Sept. 2 deadline," he said.

But the news on this front has not all been bad for Microsoft. Earlier in July the commonwealth of Massachusetts did a 180-degree turn and decided to support the Open XML format in addition to the OASIS ODF (Open Document Format for Office Applications).

Click here to read more about why Massachusetts decided to embrace Open XML.

Microsoft believes the matter is about choice; Robertson said the Redmond, Wash.-based company continues to hear from customers and others in the industry that they want to be able to choose the format that best meets their needs.

"Open XML is an exciting choice for them. Thats not to say it will be the choice in every case—not at all—but it is going to be an important available choice and they want that recognized by the ISO ratification process," Robertson said in an interview.

But Rob Weir, an IBM employee and advocate of the rival ODF, pointed out on his "An Antic Disposition" personal blog that 16 new members had joined V1 over the last month, many of which are Microsoft business partners.

Six of the seven original V1 members voted against the resolution while the seventh, Microsoft, voted in favor, and 14 of the 16 new members also supported the motion, he said.

Asked about the intimation that Microsoft is trying to stack the voting deck in its favor, Robertson said there is a rapidly growing community of companies and users in the space who are really interested in the technology.

Read more here about how Microsoft has hit back at its Open XML critics.

"They want to be a part of the discussion as to what the U.S. position is at the end of the day. The implication of that intimation is that the way the standards process worked 10 years ago should be set in stone and no new participants, no new blood and no new ideas should be allowed to be involved in the process. We are at a really important time in the evolution of the industry with the addition of these XML-based formats and many companies are working with Open XML," he said.

One such company is Boston-based Xinnovation, a Microsoft partner that creates document and presentation automation tools for the financial services market.

Next Page: To pass, or not to pass.

The Open XML Debate

Xinnovation Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Stephen Peront tells eWEEK that while there is a lot of fluff in the market, it seems pretty clear to him that the industry needs Open XML as a standard.

"I mean, why wouldnt the [United States] want all these billions of documents it has to be available as an open standard, especially with many local authorities pushing for documents in open standard formats? This, coupled with the need for U.S. businesses to play well in the global community, really makes for a great case as to why it should be," he said.

Peront, who is a member of the V1 committee, said that given the obvious benefits the Open XML standard offered, the committee should have easily been able to pass a recommendation to the JTC 1 board.

To read more about how Open XML hit roadblocks in the United States and abroad, click here.

"However, it seems that some people were more concerned with their own interests—or maybe its just anti-Microsoft sentiment—than with what is best for the [United States]. At one point we were only one vote away from reaching consensus and some people were actively making suggestions about how to make adjustments with what had been proposed, but there was a real push to end the meeting rather than work toward consensus," he said.

Many of the government-regulated organizations that Xinnovation works with are confused why the committee has so easily pushed through other document formats "that add no value to their current business objectives but are seemingly trying to prevent Open XML from going through," Peront said.

Robertson said Microsoft doesnt understand why there is so much opposition—both in the United States and abroad—to having the format approved as an ISO standard, as there is no reason why people should not support choice.

"I think there is clearly a competitive dynamic here and that is the basis of a lot of the opposition," he said, adding that if the interests of the customers and the broader IT industry were put at the forefront, the decision would be clear.

"Choice has got to be the way to go. We cannot freeze technology in this critical area in 2005 or 2006. Things will evolve and we will have new formats in the marketplace. The question for the international community is whether it wants to be part of the evolution of this technology going forward, and the answer has to be yes," he said.

In fact, earlier this year Microsoft released an open letter accusing IBM of driving the effort to force ODF on users through public procurement mandates, which Microsoft viewed as an attempt to restrict choice and limit adoption of its Open XML format.

To read more about why Microsoft says IBM is limiting choice, click here.

For IBMs Weir, the way forward is unclear. "It is typical practice for INCITS to follow the recommendations of its technical committees. But since the committee of technical experts in V1 was not able to develop a consensus recommendation, it is not clear how the INCITS Executive Board will now make their decision," Weir said in his blog.

Robertson said the report would now go to the executive board along with all the comments made. The board would then decide how the ballot looked and issue it with a 30-day voting period, he said, noting that the executive board would now be voting on this "and it has a different membership profile."

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