Microsoft guns Open XML onto ISO fast track

Agreement over the weekend could lead to vote by August

The International Standards Organization (ISO) agreed Saturday to put Open XML, the document format created and championed by Microsoft Corp., on a fast-track approval process that could see Open XML ratified as an international standard by August.

That’s despite lingering opposition to Open XML by several key voting countries, including some of whom whose governments are moving forward to adopt the alternative Open Document Format for Office Applications (ODF) format, which the ISO approved as a standard last year.

According to an e-mail sent Saturday by Lisa Rajchel, the secretariat of ISO’s Joint Technical Committee (JTC-1) on Information Technology, the Open XML proposal, along with comments and criticism by nations that have already reviewed it, will be put on the ISO’s five-month balloting process.

The e-mail did not give a date when the proposal would officially be put on a ballot and distributed to all 157 countries represented in the ISO, though it is likely to happen this week, according to Stacy Leistner, director of communications at the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which is assisting the ISO in this issue.

Microsoft did not immediately return an e-mailed request for comment. IBM, through a spokesman, declined to comment. IBM has consistently opposed Open XML’s approval, and Microsoft has accused IBM, which is supporting ODF in its applications such as Lotus Notes and Workplace, of inappropriate meddling in Open XML’s approval process.  

Rajchel wrote that she decided to move Open XML forward after consulting with staff at the International Technology Task Force. She did not mention that the 6,000-page proposal, submitted by another standards body, Ecma International, had garnered comments and criticism from 20 out of the 30 countries sitting on the JTC-1 committee.

When first reported in mid-February, parties opposing Open XML’s ratification had speculated that enough of the then-unrevealed comments would identify fatal "contradictions" in Open XML that would scuttle its bid for fast track approval.

But according to a tally conducted by Computerworld in early March and based on ISO documents (download PDF), only six countries formally opposed Open XML’s fast-tracking, with another five nations showing strong doubts to the Open XML proposal in its current form.

For a proposed standard to be approved by the ISO, no more than one-third of JTC-1, or 10 countries, can vote against it. Meanwhile, no more than one quarter of ISO’s 157 members that cast their vote -- non-JTC-1 member countries may abstain -- can vote against it.

The U.S. did not submit a comment or a contradiction through its member body, the International Committee for Information Technology Standards.

The most common objection to the proposed standard has been the overlap between Open XML and ODF, which the ISO ratified last May. Several countries suggested "harmonizing" ODF with Open XML to make them more interoperable. Other commonly-cited objections include patent violations by Open XML, the lengthiness of Ecma’s proposal, and specific issues related to how Open XML operates technically.

Ecma submitted lengthy rebuttals in late February those criticisms, but did not change the Open XML proposal.

A vote whether or not to approve Open XML will take place exactly five months from the date the ballot is officially issued, Leistner said. Countries, even those that have submitted official memos criticizing or praising the Open XML proposal, can change their positions.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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