Standards Body Weighs Microsoft’s Competing Format For Document Sharing

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By Kaitlin Mara
Public and private-sector representatives from thirty-seven nations are in Geneva this week for a five-day closed-door meeting to try to resolve editing suggestions on a recently proposed document format that if accepted as a standard could impact file-sharing worldwide.

At issue is what has become a hotly contested fight over a proposed international standard for Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) format, also referred to as ISO/IEC DIS 29500. The Geneva-based International Standards Organization (ISO) is holding a “Ballot Resolution Meeting” on the draft standard from 25 to 29 February.

Microsoft’s OOXML format already enjoys international standard status under Ecma International, an industry standards-making body also based in Geneva. But the ISO vote is of significance as ISO’s standards-making procedure is generally considered to be both more independent and more rigorous, several sources said. It is also an accepted international standards body for the European Commission, which Ecma is not, according to an EU source.

ISO’s Joint Technical Committee previously granted fast-track status for consideration of OOXML standardisation. This means that the standard was first submitted to a five-month “letter ballot” in which all of ISO’s member national standards bodies have a chance to review the proposed standard, voting either to approve, disapprove, or abstain. Approval as a standard requires 66.6 percent (two-thirds) of the votes to be in favour and no more than 25 percent of the votes to be against. In Microsoft’s case, according to the ISO, only 53 percent of the votes were positive and 26 percent negative after the initial review, which ended on 2 September 2007.

Voting bodies may also make comments on a proposed standard, suggestions for needed edits and/or changes necessary to improve the document or to make the document acceptable for that particular body’s approval. All national standards bodies that voted in the initial review – in Microsoft’s case, 87 bodies – are invited to the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) where they can discuss the suggestions made. Attendance is obligatory for all bodies that voted to disapprove, according to sources.

Microsoft received 3,722 comments on its OOXML format, according to IBM’s Don Harrison. Those suggestions have been whittled down to 1,100 through “grouping and eliminating redundancies,” according to ISO.

This week’s meeting is a technical meeting in which attending representatives from the national bodies have five days to resolve as many of these 1,100 issues as they can. After that, bodies will have thirty days, until 29 March, to submit a change to their vote if they so choose, according to ISO.

If OOXML is approved, it can continue the process towards becoming an international standard, it said. If it fails, it is considered to have failed the fast-track process as a whole and Microsoft will be required to reapply, if it chooses to do so, through ISO’s normal approval procedures.

The Open Source Lobby

The BRM has attracted a number of lobbyists and technologists to Geneva, many converging at a concurrent event called OpenForum Europe, organised by [correction: organised by OpenForum Europe and supported by] the Open Document Format (ODF) Alliance and the Free Software Foundation and held in the same building as the BRM. The ODF is OOXML’s rival standard and has been an international standard under ISO since 2006. It was approved in the first round ballot letter process without recourse to a BRM.

Reactions to the BRM have been mixed. Jonathan Zuck of the Association for Competitive Technology, which counts Microsoft as a member and issued a statement in support of the standard, said that OOXML is just as deserving as ODF of standardisation, as “only OOXML offers full fidelity for storage of existing documents” from prior versions of word-processing software.

Vint Cerf, vice president and “chief Internet evangelist” for Google, which appears to oppose the OOXML standard, argued that something that has been worked on by only one party should not be labelled a standard, and that OOXML appears to be more like the publication of a proprietary specification.

The biggest problem, according to Sachiko Muto of the OpenForum, is the lack of transparency in the process. “I’m shocked that an international standard can be pushed through” in the way that it has. The ISO process is closed to journalists, and those not representing one of the 87 invited standards bodies, the Ecma delegation, or ISO are not permitted entrance.

OOXML contains some 6,000 pages of code [correction: of specifications], the complexity of which could inhibit its usefulness, according to critics. Some participants at the OpenForum have made up tongue-in-cheek stickers asking “Have you read all 6,000 pages?” in order to contrast the length in the ODF format – which is 722 pages – along with its relative simplicity. A participant said the campaign also is aimed at raising the point that a five-day meeting for resolving over 1,000 comments on a document 6,000 pages long may not be adequate time for a quality peer-review process.

Kaitlin Mara may be reached at kmara@ip-watch.ch.

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Comments

  1. says

    Good article. As promised, Microsoft just published the specificiations of its old doc, xls and ppt formats as well as the related documentation. Before the specifications were made available freely, you had to email Microsoft. Surprisingly, they also made the documentation for a few other supporting technologies available.

    They even launched a new Open Source project (including a development roadmap) for a translator from binary to Open XML. The project is live on sourceforge. However, there is not a single line of code yet nor any binary package for download. Besides, substantial records may remain unspecified or missing.

    Some specialists warned that the milestones defined in the roadmap are way too optimistic.

    While many people critize the complexity of the Microsoft Office file formats (mainly due to backward compatibility issues) or even argue the necessity for OOXML, the recent release of the specifications may be just a strategy to get the OOXML format accepted as an ISO standard. There is no guarantee that the translation project on sourceforge will be properly implemented.

    On the other hand, the Open Document ISO standard already got the support of Sun, Google, IBM, Novell, Wikimedia. Now that the competition globally managed to parse the old doc, xls and ppt formats, Microsoft has nothing to lose by explaining how those are coded. However, by pushing its own Open XML, the firm is clearly battling against Open Document. By the way, it is funny to note that everyone’s talking about Open Source, Open formats, Open knowledge, etc, everything is presented as ‘open’ and free while there is a real war going on behind the scene!

    Meanwhile, Office 2008 still does not recognize Open Document files by default and Open Office still does not recognize Office Open XML…

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