Mr. Gates goes to Washington as U.S. decision on OOXML nears

Question from Wash. state rep leads to impromptu lobbying moment

Microsoft Corp.'s last-minute lobbying in the U.S. on behalf of its Office Open XML (OOXML) document format included a visit by outgoing chairman Bill Gates to a congressional committee this week.

The executive board of the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards, or INCITS, is expected on Friday to tally the results of a letter ballot on whether to maintain its position in favor of OOXML's ratification in ISO.

Most of INCITS's 19 members are large high-tech vendors, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, EMC, Intel, Sony Electronics and Apple, all of which supported OOXML last September, as well as opponents, such as IBM and Oracle.

But more than a third of INCITS's members are federal groups, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and industry trade groups with close ties to Washington D.C. The industry contingent includes the IEEE, the Electronic Industries Alliance, GS1 US, and a new member, RFID and bar-code standards consortium AIM Global Inc.

Gates spoke (YouTube video) Wednesday in front of the U.S. House of Representatives' committee on science and technology. Though most of his talk was devoted to his own predictions concerning the future of IT, he answered a question from Washington state congressman Brian Baird, who said he was "particularly interested in the issue of Open XML and the broader question about standards."

Gates answered that Microsoft wants to see OOXML become an ISO standard, in part, "so that families and researchers and archivists will be able to access information from the past and use it to interact in the future. And it's by mining data like this that I think a lot of the advances in understanding how education is best done, or understanding what should be in the medical field. So it's both an important thing for innovation and an important thing for citizens to have access to information."

Baird, who represents Washington's capital, Olympia, and other towns that are south of the Seattle metropolitan area where most of Microsoft's employees live and work, replied that he "appreciated" and "applauded Microsoft for its leadership in this area and the whole issue of standards."

Ammo for the opposition?

This softball exchange in the nation's capitol may give ammunition to OOXML foes, who argue that Microsoft is playing hardball and more here and internationally in order to secure OOXML's passage.

For instance, a site called NO OOXML alleged on Monday that the 17-4 vote by INCITS's V1 technical committee last week in favor of OOXML was tainted because of the numerous Microsoft allies that joined a year ago.

Microsoft technical evangelist and V1 member Doug Mahugh readily admits to contacting Microsoft's partners and customers about joining the committee.

"These people have hands-on experience with XML. My view is that they are exactly the right people for V1," he said by phone. Mahugh denied pressuring or offering incentives to them.

This was corroborated by Adam Jansen, former digital archivist for the state of Washington, who joined V1 last year and was, until leaving the state, a member.

"There was absolutely no coercion" by Microsoft, Jansen said via phone. "This was a crusade I felt passionate about."

Jansen, who worked closely with Microsoft to start up the state's digital archive project, calls his stance on standards a "pragmatic one. I don't care whether it's ODF or OOXML, as long as they are open."

Big dog isn't barking

IBM, Microsoft's main nemesis, has not filed a formal complaint in INCITS, though its V1 member, Rob Weir, has blogged about it.

It may not matter. Despite V1's failure last summer to come to agreement over OOXML, the INCITS executive board still ended up voting 12-3 (with one abstention) in favor of it.

"The EB definitely has its own mind," said one board member who declined to be named.

And no one has accused the 19-member EB of being packed with allies from either Microsoft or IBM. Packing the EB would be more difficult, in part because of the higher annual membership fee — $35,000 for companies making more than $100 million a year vs. $1,200 for any size company in V1.

Besides AIM Global, other new members to the EB include Adobe Systems Inc. — which, with its ISO-approved PDF format, is pitted against Microsoft — and mobile phone equipment maker Qualcomm Inc., which has partnered closely with Microsoft on Windows Mobile and other initiatives.

In the unlikely event that the EB reaches a unanimous position on the first ballot, it will forward that result to ISO, which plans to tally votes worldwide on March 29th. The more likely scenario is that the EB members will next week start proposing resolutions approving, abstaining from or disapproving OOXML. Those resolutions can be decided by a two-thirds majority (see page 33 of this INCITS PDF , or page 39 in Acrobat Reader).

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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