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Weak ISO support for changes to Open XML throws shadow over final approval

Critics say little discussion on the technical tweaks took place

By Eric Lai
February 29, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A committee of ISO members in Geneva may have approved the proposed changes to Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) on Friday, but the document format's final approval remains far from certain.

Critics charge that the discussion around the 1,100 mostly esoteric technical tweaks — delivered in mid-January via a 2,300-page document by standards body Ecma International — was so perfunctory that no consensus can be drawn from it.

"Eighty percent of the changes were not discussed," said Frank Farance, head of the U.S. delegation to this week's ballot resolution meeting (BRM) in ISO, which voted against the changes. "It's like if you had a massive software project and 80% of it was not run through QA.

"It's a big problem," Farance continued. "I've never seen anything like this, and I've been doing this for 25 years."

Besides the 200 or so changes that were discussed and approved by committee members, another 900 were grouped together for a single vote without any discussion, because of lack of time.

Of the 32 participating countries, only six, including the Czech Republic and Poland, voted to approve those 900 changes. Eighteen countries, or more than half, abstained, while another four countries refused to register a vote, according to a blog of Andy Updegrove, a lawyer and open standards activist.

Four countries, including the U.S. and Malaysia, according to Farance, voted not to approve those 900 changes.

That, according to critics, indicates a lack of actual support for Open XML.

"People here are disgusted," Updegrove said by phone from Geneva, where he observed the week's proceedings. "The absurdity of trying to do this by a 'fast track' process became quite apparent this week."

Microsoft Corp., however, said that Open XML has faced far greater scrutiny than other ISO formats, including the rival OpenDocument Format, which quickly passed in a fast-track process in 2006. Expecting that every change needed individual approval at this week's meeting would only add to an already bureaucratic process, the company argued.

"I think the process has worked," said Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, in a phone interview from Geneva. "There has been a lot of discussion since this process was started on Sept. 2. Not every issue that was raised needed to be discussed face to face this week.

"The national bodies this week simply identified the issues that mattered most to them, and focused their discussion on them," Robertson continued. "I think it's fair to say there was a pretty rigorous review of those issues."

Robertson declined to comment on Open XML's prospects for final adoption by ISO.

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