Analysis: ISO vote is only first step for Open XML

Critics and backers agree that Microsoft's file format still faces lengthy adoption process

The apparent international standards organization (ISO) vote to approve Microsoft's Office Open XML document format as an international standard is just the start of a likely lengthy adoption and implementation process, according to both critics and supporters of the specifications.

Some critics of Microsoft Corp.'s now-successful attempt to fast-track Open XML along the ISO standards process said it seems appropriate that the company confirmed the document exchange specifications on April Fools' Day. Supporters say the vote is a victory for software developers and business users who now have another standard file format option.

Though the ISO won't officially announce the results until tomorrow, Microsoft and a number of other sources today confirmed that the specification was backed by 86% of voters. Under ISO rules, a standards proposal must be supported by 75% of all the national standards bodies that cast ballots and 67% of the ones that actively participate in discussions on the proposal.

Tom Robertson, general manager of Microsoft interoperability and standards, said the vote proves that "the global community has now embraced Open XML," and means that it "will be widely used for years to come in every country in the world."

The final vote had barely been tallied before there were reports of voting irregularities. Protests over the ISO voting process and outcomes are not uncommon, said Jan van den Beld, consultant for The Computing Technology Industry Association and former secretary general of the Ecma standards group, which had encouraged Microsoft to fast-track Open XML through the international standards process.

Still, the Open XML voting process has been particularly contentious, with both sides slinging mud for the better part of two years as the specs made their way first through the Ecma standards process and then on to the ISO.

For example, shortly after the voting ended on Sunday, the ISO's Norwegian contingent asked that country's Ministry of Trade and Industry to investigate the voting process, claiming that 80% of committee members were opposed to the "yes" vote that was recorded.

For the record, the Norwegian standards body, Standard Norge, today defended its vote. The group's statement was translated and posted on the blog site of a Microsoft employee.

No matter which side you're on or whom you believe, the ISO vote brings Open XML to the level of its rival Open Document Format for XML (ODF) rival document format, approved by ISO members earlier.

The next step for Microsoft will likely be a proper implementation of the standard in Office 2007 -- the suite that sparked the file format war because of its lack of any ODF technology.

Robertson said that Microsoft will begin work on an Open XML implementation road map for implementation at an as yet unknown time. He noted that the ISO is now responsible for the file format and must finalize the standard specifications. He expected the organization's work to be complete by the end of this year.

Some observers noted that the specification will need significant work -- a thorough "scrubbing," as one critic put it -- before it's ready to stand on its own.

"No one can actually implement this standard -- not even Microsoft," said Pamela Jones, author of the popular Groklaw blog and an outspoken critic of the effort to make Open XML a standard. She noted that "the format references proprietary stuff from the past. Stuff that is patented, no doubt, but mainly just unknown and unknowable."

Robertson said the ISO developers should be able satisfy those who believe that the spec is too complex today. He also noted that Open XML today is far less complex than it was upon submission to the ISO.

Moreover, CompTIA's van den Beld contended that it's "not true" that the spec can't be implemented today, contending that IBM has already done so. An IBM spokesman, however, said that the company has not yet implemented Open XML, and that the company's productivity applications merely "recognize" it as a file format.

"It's kind of like when you encounter a 'read-only' file on your computer, where it knows enough to give you a sense of what the file is and its characteristics," said IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind. "But it won't allow you to actually work with the file. So it's misleading to suggest that [IBM] has adopted, embraced or implemented that particular file format."

Observers note that a standard Open XML will not solve a key problem faced by Office 2007 users: Files that are written in previous versions of Office can be opened as OOXML .docx files in Office 2007, but files saved to the .docx file format can't be read by people using older versions of Office without an OOXML converter.

Although such a converter is available from Microsoft -- and according to Robertson, is one of the company's most popular downloads-- it's still an extra step for users.

Another issue at hand is whether Microsoft will ever include native support for ODF in Office 2007 now that it expects the world to adopt Open XML. To date, the company has said that it has no plans to do so.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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