Microsoft's Open XML under scrutiny on its way to ISO approval

Nations are weighing in on the ODF rival

Microsoft Corp.'s Office Open XML document format, its progress unimpeded so far as it speeds toward approval by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) later this year, may have hit its first bump on the road.

Nineteen countries, including some that have already adopted the alternative ISO-approved OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard, submitted comments and objections regarding Open XML, according to an official letter sent out yesterday by the ISO and viewed by Computerworld.

Stacy Leistner, director of communication for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which is helping the ISO manage the Open XML approval process, declined to comment on how many of the 19 submissions were "contradictions." In ISO terminology, contradictions are serious objections to ratifying Open XML. Submissions can also include more general comments.

"It's up to each country to define what constitutes a contradiction to an existing ISO standard," Leistner said. "It could be anything from changing a comma here or there, or a more technical objection."

At least one country said its letter to ISO leans toward the latter. "While Australia did not submit a formal contradiction, a number of issues were identified during our review that we believe warrant consideration," Alistair Tegart, a program manager with Standards Australia, wrote in an e-mail.

But Boston lawyer Andrew Updegrove, citing a source close to the process, said at least seven countries submitted formal objections to Open XML's approval. "All in all, not a very auspicious start for Open XML. And not one that augers well for a very fast Fast Track experience," he wrote in his ConsortiumInfo Standards blog.

Open XML, the default file format in Office 2007, was certified in December as a standard by the Ecma International body after a year-long process shepherded by Microsoft. Open XML's progress in ISO was never going to be as smooth, however. ISO approved the alternative ODF format as a standard last May.

The nations that submitted comments and objections to Open XML constitute more than half of the 30 countries in the ISO's information technology committee -- the gatekeeper that will determine whether to allow Open XML's 6,000 page proposal to get a general vote by ISO's 157 members.

Those countries include Denmark, France, Malaysia and Norway, which have all in the past year moved to adopt nonproprietary document standards such as ODF. They argue that ODF, though much less widely used than Microsoft formats, is more open and could help provide a lower-cost solution based around the free OpenOffice software for cash-strapped government agencies. Microsoft's fear is that businesses and consumers will follow suit.

Jason Matusow, senior director for intellectual property and interoperability for Microsoft, blamed IBM, which uses ODF in the latest versions of its flagship e-mail client, Lotus Notes, for whipping up opposition to Open XML. Despite appearances, he said IBM's efforts have borne little fruit.

"Of the 100-plus countries involved in this process, only 19 have made submissions," Matusow wrote in an e-mail. "In fact, we expect that some are either statements of support or simple statements that the ISO member has no comments at this stage."

Microsoft also continues to assert that Open XML brings more choice to customers, with Matusow noting that developers funded by Microsoft released their first plug-in for translating between Open XML and ODF documents earlier this month.

Other countries that responded to the ISO's call include Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Singapore, Sweden and the U.K.

The U.S., represented in ISO by the Washington-based InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), did not submit a comment or contradiction.

On its Web site, the INCITS lists three letters officially objecting to Open XML, including one from IBM that raises six formal contradictions to Open XML, including an assertion that the format is technically deficient and is confusing to non-Microsoft employees.

Updegrove said that the INCITS decided to adopt a more narrow and conservative definition of an ISO contradiction, a move likely to have some activists, such as Australian techie Rick Jelliffe, applaud.

Comments from the countries will be made public by ISO after Feb. 28, as will Ecma's response. Updegrove said that Ecma could wind up pushing "the national bodies more aggressively than ever to vote for adoption," or might withdraw the existing proposal and resubmit a less controversial one.

At that time, the ISO information technology committee will decide whether to put Open XML on a so-called fast track for a general vote within five months. If that happens, Open XML's fate could be decided as early as August. 

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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