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Countries Line Up Against OOXML as Global Standard

Countries Line Up Against OOXML as Global Standard

Venezuela became the latest in a string of countries to appeal the approval of Microsoft's Office Open XML file format as an international standard. The format was approved in an international vote after a fast-track process that several participating countries say was flawed.

By Katherine Noyes
06/02/08 2:53 PM PT

Venezuela is now the latest country to appeal the adoption of an international standard based on Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) file format.

Following news last week that the South African Bureau of Standards had sent a letter protesting the decision late last month, Brazil and India joined with their own appeals shortly thereafter.

Although the deadline for appealing the March 29 decision was to be within two months, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) have reportedly accepted Venezuela's appeal despite the fact that it was made after that time.

Denmark has also filed an appeal with the ISO, according to Computerworld Denmark, but that report could not be confirmed.

Not Surprised

"I am not surprised by the number of appeals given the reported irregularities," Marino Marcich, managing director for the ODF Alliance, told LinuxInsider. The ODF Alliance seeks to promote and advance the use of OpenDocument Format (ODF).

"Countries felt their concerns were not allowed to be voiced, or simply went unaddressed," Marcich explained. "The number of formal appeals is unprecedented and underscores the deep-seated concern over how well OOXML plays with the software of vendors besides Microsoft."

Although 75 percent of ISO member nations voted to approve OOXML as a standard, many of the recent appeals charge that the process was flawed and did not give participants enough time to voice their concerns.

Contentious Arena

Indeed, the world of open document standards has been a contentious one. Competing with Microsoft's OOXML has been ODF, an already-existing ISO standard that is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Both IBM and Sun Microsystems have embraced ODF.

Meanwhile, the OpenDocument Foundation, which spent most of the past five or so years promoting ODF, in October switched direction and embraced CDF, the Compound Document Format, instead. A short time later, the foundation disbanded.

Opponents say OOXML locks out competitors, despite Microsoft's assertions since the vote that it will ensure compatibility with rival file formats.

Adding to Microsoft's woes, the European Union is investigating the OOXML approval process.

Two Different Paths

The trouble with OOXML's approval may lie not so much with the ISO itself -- which oversees a great many standards -- but rather with the process of the Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC 1), which was what led to the standard's adoption.

There are two possible paths an external standard can take under JTC 1 -- Publicly Available Specification, or PAS, and Fast Track -- and the magnitude of the differences between them is frequently underestimated, Douglas Johnson, standards manager at Sun Microsystems, told LinuxInsider.

"Many people, including virtually all the press, lump these together as fast track processes, but we think there are vast differences that are really important," Johnson explained.

There are places where the JTC 1 process is inconsistent with itself, and where procedures are not laid out, he said.

Just as full public access to the Internet stressed it, leading ultimately to the implementation of security and other procedures that are in place today, so "the pressure and visibility on this has pressed the system," Johnson said. "We think a reexamination of the fast track processes would be a timely thing."

'Significant Unhappiness'

"I think that the first thing worth noting is that three of the senior category (principal) members of SC 34, the committee tasked with vetting document format standards, are sufficiently unhappy with ... the adoption process that they have filed formal appeals," Andrew Updegrove, founding partner of the Gesmer Updegrove law firm and director of standards and strategy at the Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

"Even one appeal is a rare occurrence, so receiving appeals from 10 percent of the countries that attended the Ballot Resolution Meeting -- and a higher percentage of the [principal] members in attendance -- is a confirmation that there is significant unhappiness over how the OOXML process was conducted," he asserted.

In particular, "many people are unhappy with the fact that such a large specification could, under the rules, be introduced under a 'Fast Track' process, and why it was necessary to press forward as quickly as occurred even when it was not required to do so," Updegrove pointed out. "Having a ballot resolution meeting only five days long, when very little could be done as well as usual, both frustrated and angered many of those involved. "

'Icing on the Cake'

Microsoft's recent announcement that it does not intend to implement OOXML in the current version of Office "is rather the icing on the cake," he added.

"When its efforts to secure approval without significant changes failed, Microsoft nonetheless pushed the entire process -- and 68 countries in all -- to re-evaluate and consider changing their votes, based upon a 2,300-page revision document that was released only a piece at a time, with the last delivery occurring only about a month before the BRM," he explained. "Almost 130 people also traveled from around the world and spent a week in Geneva, at their own cost, as well. If Microsoft was not willing to follow through on its end of the bargain, it could have saved an awful lot of people an awful lot of time and trouble by making that decision sooner."

The fact that ODF will be natively supported in Office, albeit in a year's time, "is, of course, good news," Updegrove conceded. "This gives much greater credibility to ODF, and should greatly enhance ODF's credibility and the willingness of all types of users -- individual, governments, SME, and even large enterprises -- to invest time and effort in working with ODF-based documents, and even investing in software that preferentially generates them.

"Still," he concluded, "one can't help reflecting how much better off we would all be if Microsoft had simply joined the ODF working group back in 2003."

'User Beware'

So what will happen next?

ECMA International, a Geneva-based private standards organization, was the group that originally proposed the OOXML Fast Track, Istvan Sebestyen, the group's secretary general, told LinuxInsider.

The ISO/IEC version of OOXML -- known within the group as ECMA-376 -- "is planned as the second edition of ECMA-376," Sebestyen explained. However, in order for that second edition to happen, "ECMA International would need the ISO/IEC approved text and also need the resolution of the ISO/IEC appeal."

If the appeal process is resolved by early fall, "then for the time being I see no delay in the approval and publication" of the revised OOXML, or ECMA-376 Edition 2, yet, he said.

In the meantime, however, the standard may be in a sort of limbo, Marcich predicted.

"No matter what the outcome of the formal appeals process, until the concerns are addressed and the Microsoft promises actually delivered, OOXML will come with a 'user beware' label attached to it," he said. "Governments will continue to go with ODF."


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