Ecma approves Microsoft's Office Open XML as a standard

IBM is sole vote against approval; format next goes to the ISO

Microsoft Corp. won approval for its Office Open XML document format from international standards body Ecma International.

Ecma's General Assembly voted 20-1 in favor of the standard at a meeting in Zurich today, and will now submit the format to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for its approval. The lone vote against approval came from an IBM representative.

A standardized document format will make it easier for competing software companies to develop products that can work smoothly with one another, such as editing the same documents. Products meeting the standard could find favor with governments or other organizations concerned about interoperability.

Interoperability is vital for the preservation of archive information, according to Adam Farquhar, head of e-architecture at the British Library and a member of the committee that worked on the standard at ECMA. The British Library archives electronic documents, and must work with them in whatever format they arrive. The development of interoperable software tools will make that work easier.

"The level of precision in this standard is unprecedented," Farquhar said. The standard runs to several thousand pages.

To help developers digest the standard, the committee has published a 14-page white paper explaining it.

"The committee put a lot of effort into making the document accessible," Farquhar said.

That accessibility is important if Microsoft is to win over developers to its document format, as the company faces competition in the standards industry just as it does in the software market.

A rival document format, Open Document Format (ODF), has already won approval from the ISO, and was published as an ISO standard last month. ODF is used by office productivity suites such as or Sun Microsystems's StarOffice, and has gained the support of other companies, including IBM. Government officials in France and the  Commonwealth of Massachusetts have recommended adoption of ODF as a government standard.

ISO approval "is a critical factor for governments," said Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, a body that promotes the Open Document Format.

Microsoft's general manager for interoperability and XML architecture, Jean Paoli, agreed  that "some public institutions prefer standards that are ISO-certified."

There are still several hurdles to overcome before Microsoft can obtain ISO approval. Ecma has asked for fast-tracking of the standard, a process to which national standards bodies have about 30 days to object. If there are no objections, then ISO Subcommittee 34 will spend five or six months examining comments on the standard received from the national standards bodies. Only then will the ISO's Joint Technical Committee 1 vote on the standard.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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