The Worldwide Search for a Standard Document Format

The reaction to ISO’s recent rejection of Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) ranged from triumphant: “Microsoft trounced in document format vote,” to cautious: “not so fast.”

Lost amid the complex ISO process and reports of Microsoft’s ballot-stuffing is a clear understanding of just what the fuss at ISO is all about, and its relevance to governments, businesses and individuals around the world.

More Than a Buzzword

Although the talk about document formats may seem arcane, there is a lot hanging in the balance. “Open” is indeed more than just a buzzword; the demand for open standards as a foundation in new government enterprise architectures continues to grow.

To date, eight national governments, four regional/state governments, and more than 50 government agencies worldwide have recognized the benefits of open standards. A truly open standard, such as OpenDocument Format (ODF), ensures public access to information, technology neutrality and choice. ODF is now being considered for use by countries in every major region of the globe.

In turn, growing pressure from governments mandating the use of “open” standards to facilitate the delivery of e-government services and cut costs has raised the ante on openness and standardization.

Standards Bodies Step In

Enter the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), frequently referred to as simply ISO. ISO has become the gold standard for global standardization.

The organization is comprised of 140-plus national standards bodies representing the broadest possible international consensus of stakeholder groups — business, government and society. Importantly for Microsoft, ISO approval can influence government IT procurement, as many governments make broad use of recognized standards in support of their policies and legislation demanding “open standards.”

Following the ISO’s unanimous approval of ODF in May 2006, the recent failure of OOXML marked a sharp contrast and a disappointment for Microsoft, who expected OOXML to join ODF as the second globally recognized open document format.

To the contrary, OOXML fell far short of the necessary votes to move forward as a recognized standard, and the more than 600 pages of comments submitted by national standards bodies explicitly identified the many concerns with OOXML, including the lack of proven multiple-vendor support, single-vendor functionality (ties to other proprietary Microsoft products), the adequacy of Microsoft’s patent pledge, and undocumented features of OOXML that prevent its use in other software applications.

Open Means Open

For a document format to be considered “open,” it should be fully implemented by many different vendors, interoperable, fully published, and available royalty free without intellectual property restrictions.

Microsoft’s OOXML continues to fail this test. For example, the comments from the British Standards Institute pointed out that “there was no other proven implementation of OOXML apart from Office 2007.”

Unless and until there is another proven implementation, any government beginning to use OOXML would be faced with only one option. This is contrary to the objective of government open standards policies.

Open standards policies are proliferating as governments seek to create IT architectures that rely on open standards to allow multiple vendors to compete directly based on the features and performance of their products.

What governments obviously need are open standards that enable technology solutions that are portable and that can be removed and replaced with that of another vendor with minimal effort and without major interruption.

Issue Isn’t Dead

To be sure, there is a long way to go in the ISO process. It is not until late February 2008 that there will be a meeting within ISO that will attempt to resolve the concerns the recent vote raised about OOXML — a tall task by any measure. No matter the final outcome, governments will likely continue do what they’ve done throughout most of 2007: adopting policies that mandate truly open standards and continue making plans to switch to ODF.

Just this month, the government of the Netherlands, whose national standards body voted to abstain on OOXML, announced that ODF will be the standard for reading, publishing and the exchange of information for all governmental organizations by January 2009.

At a time when IT managers are forced to deal with the explosive growth in electronic records, an open document format is essential. Even if OOXML should manage to get the ISO stamp of approval at some point in the distant future, it is likely that it will come with merely a promise from Microsoft to address the myriad lingering concerns.

For now, the failure for OOXML to clear the ISO hurdle represents a “buyer beware” warning for governments in their quest for open standards and interoperability.

Marino Marcich is managing director of the ODF Alliance.

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