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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Open XML voting ends with both sides predicting victory

Both sides in the Office Open XML (OOXML) debate claimed victory Friday as a key international standards body meeting called to help determine the file formats' future wrapped up in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ironically, despite the two sides' posturing, the meeting's outcome does not directly determine whether OOXML becomes a ratified standard for document interchange or not. Instead, it starts the clock running for countries to change their votes – or not.

This week's meeting was held to resolve issues raised last summer by voting nations when they voted down a bid by Microsoft and European standards body Ecma International to get OOXML certified as a standard by the granddaddy of standards groups -- the Organization for International Standardization (ISO). Ecma already approved OOXML as its own standard in 2006 and is the organization submitting the formats to ISO.

pivotal meeting of international delegates to decide the fate of Microsoft's Open XML finished on Friday with advocates and foes of the standards bid predicting victory.

Brian Jones, an Office program manager at Microsoft involved in the process to standardize Open XML, posted a blog Friday saying that consensus among delegates at the meeting had been reached. Microsoft has been seeking standards approval for Open XML for two years at a joint committee of the ISO/IEC (International Organization for Standardization/International Electrotechnical Commission).

In an interview, Microsoft's general manager for standards and interoperabilty Tom Robertson on Friday said the "overwhelming majority" of comments and concerns raised by international standards bodies this week were effectively resolved.

Robertson stopped short of saying that Open XML will certainly become an ISO standard, but he said that the five-day meeting in Geneva has moved toward consensus as designed.

"I'm feeling very good about the process and the fact that what we have now at end of the week have a clear direction on how to address issue and concerns raised. Those changes should make the national bodies very happy," he said.

Meanwhile, advocates of rival standard, OpenDocument Format (ODF), said that the weeklong meeting is unlikely to provide the impetus needed to make Microsoft's Open XML an international standard.

The meeting in Geneva was held following a vote in September last year, when Open XML failed to get a sufficient number of votes to get the document format approved as an ISO-IEC standard.

During that vote, delegates from national standards bodies submitted comments about the 6,000-page specification, which were meant to be addressed during the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) this week.

National standards bodies have until March 29 to change their votes based on the activity at the BRM. If enough votes are changed in favor of Open XML, it moves ahead in the standards process.

In his blog, Jones wrote:

"The objective of the BRM was to work with all of the National Body delegations in the room and improve the specification on a technical level--and that we did. There were many technical changes the delegates made to really get consensus on some of the more challenging issues, but all of these passed overwhelmingly once they were updated. The process really worked (it was very cool)."

But two people opposed to the standardization of Open XML said that technical issues were not sufficiently addressed during the BRM where delegates from 37 countries attended.

"I don't think the BRM changed enough minds that Open XML is any more interoperable or more open than it was before," said one advocate of rival document format ODF, who did not want to be quoted because no official results have been communicated. "Certainly this result should not change the minds of any delegates at the national bodies."

No official word has come from the ISO, whose media representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

ODF advocate and standards expert Andrew Updegrove attended the meetings in Geneva this week and posted a blog with details of the proceedings based on his conversations with delegates.

He said that only a small fraction--about 20--of the 900 comments, or dispositions, were discussed. Updegrove concluded that issues concerning Open XML were not adequately hammered out.

However, during an expedited voting procedure in which dispositions were not actually discussed, many of those resolutions were approved, he said, which would lead people to conclude that the BRM was successful.

Updegrove drew the opposite conclusion and said that Microsoft is essentially trying to inappropriately push a complicated specification without sufficient consideration.

"Many, many, people around the world have tried very hard to make the OOXML adoption process work. It is very unfortunate that they were put to this predictably unsuccessful result through the self-interest of a single vendor taking advantage of a permissive process that was never intended to be abused in this fashion. It would be highly inappropriate to compound this error by approving a clearly unfinished specification in the voting period ahead," Updgegrove said.

Delegates from national standards bodies have until the end of March to revise their postions. At that point, final results on whether Open XML will be approved as an ISO-IEC standard should be known.

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