U.S. standards committee still undecided on Open XML

A key U.S. standards committee remains undecided about whether it will support a document standard proposed by Microsoft Corp., even while the company asserted that the committee has already signaled its "yes" in an upcoming vote.

The International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) said this week it still hasn't decided whether it will vote in favor of Open XML in the upcoming ISO vote that would make the file format an international standard. However, Microsoft believes the U.S. vote will be in favor of Open XML, a format it created for its Office 2007 suite, because of a proposed ballot it said the INCITS executive board put out last week.

The INCITS represents U.S. interests in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a global standards body that is scheduled to vote on standardizing Open XML on Sept. 2. Open XML is an alternative to Open Document Format for XML (ODF), which has already been approved by the ISO and is used in rival Office suites from IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The two camps have been tussling for some time over whether there is the need for two document format standards or if one will suffice. Microsoft has declined to support ODF natively in its enormously popular Office suite, instead opting in November 2005 to submit its own XML document format as a standard alongside ODF.

On Monday, the INCITS in a press statement said its executive board "has not yet determined the U.S. position," according to a statement attributed to Jennifer Garner, director of standards programs for the INCITS.

In an interview Wednesday, Garner confirmed that the executive board had issued a ballot but was still "in the process of determining a position" on Open XML. The board is expected to come up with a decision in time for the ISO's scheduled Sept. 2 vote on Open XML.

After articles were printed last week that a technical committee that advises the INCITS had failed to earn the two-thirds majority it needed to approve the Open XML spec, Microsoft sent follow-up e-mails to journalists stating that a proposed ballot that pointed to approval of the spec had been sent in a letter to members. Garner declined to confirm or deny the position on the proposed ballot, which Microsoft said is "yes, with comments."

Specifically, the e-mails cited a blog entry by Doug Mahugh, a Microsoft technical evangelist, that said the INCITS executive board "decided to issue a ballot for 'approval with comments' on Open XML.

Late Tuesday, Microsoft said through its public relations firm that "those close to this process" believe a "yes, with comments" ballot means the U.S. national body that will vote in the ISO "wants to make sure that the specification will actually become an international standard, despite the comments, and does not want to wait another year or more for a resubmission to be processed."

The comments, which could call for tweaks or changes to the specification, would have to be addressed by Ecma International, the standards body submitting Open XML to the ISO, and resolved in what is called a ballot resolution process, Microsoft said.

Open XML was fast-tracked to the ISO through Ecma in a process some critics have complained has been less than fair and open. Those who have misgivings about the spec -- who tend to have commercial interests in ODF -- are getting in some final jabs as what could be an end to the standards process nears.

In general, companies such as IBM and Sun tend to criticize Microsoft's process of trying to fast-track Open XML rather than the technology itself. They and other critics have said the company has tried to pack committees in countries that will cast ballots in the ISO with people who will be sympathetic to its cause.

In a blog entry last week, Bob Sutor, vice president of standards and open source at IBM, commented on allegations that membership in the Portugal standards body that will be a part of the ISO vote has surged suspiciously recently and voting rules have changed as the Open XML vote approaches.

"If this is really a transparent, open process, the public has the right to know what is happening in all these national standards bodies," he wrote. "I've said this before, but this is going to have repercussions for years to come, and not positive ones."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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