Nations question ISO after OOXML appeals fail

Latin countries and South Africa questioning the relevance of the ISO/IEC

Countries whose appeals were dismissed regarding the ISO/IEC's approval of Microsoft's OOXML as an international standard are questioning the judgment and relevance of the ISO/IEC, and the standards the bodies approve.

In a statement made at the Congresso Internacional Sociedade e Governo Electronico (CONSEGI) 2008 conference, representatives from three of the four countries that appealed against a vote on April 1 to approve OOXML as a standard — Brazil, South Africa and Venezuela — said they are "no longer confident" in the ability of both the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to be vendor-neutral and open when it comes to setting technology standards.

"What is now clear is that we will have to, albeit reluctantly, re-evaluate our assessment of ISO/IEC, particularly in its relevance to our various national government interoperability frameworks," says the statement by the countries, which also includes Ecuador, Cuba and Paraguay. "Whereas in the past it has been assumed that an ISO/IEC standard should automatically be considered for use within government, clearly this position no longer stands."

The statement was posted on the blog of Aslam Raffee, the chairperson of the South African government's Open Source Software Working Group. CONSEGI is a South and Latin American government open source conference. It was held in the city of Brasilia, in Brazil, this year.

Despite their concerns, however, the countries will not pursue their appeals against the decision by the organisations to move forward with the publication of ISO/IEC DIS 29500 — the name for the current OOXML specification — as an international standard.

Earlier this month, the ISO/IEC gave the green light to publish the current OOXML specification, after organisation leaders rejected appeals from Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela protesting about the vote that approved OOXML as a standard.

The specification is expected to be published within the next few weeks, after the standards bodies complete the final processing of the document and provided there are no further appeals against the decision.

Ironically, it is developing countries, like those that protested about the vote, that Microsoft was courting when it submitted OOXML to Ecma International, another standards body, in November 2005, in an effort to fast-track it through the ISO's standard-approvals process.

Microsoft created OOXML as an XML-based document format for Office 2007, the latest version of its productivity suite. Office and Microsoft's Windows OS face competition from open source and open standards-based software in developing countries, where it is often more cost-effective to use alternatives to proprietary software.

At the same time, governments in these countries as well, as in more mainstream markets, are increasingly drafting mandates requiring IT departments to use only software based on open-standard formats. Prior to becoming approved as an open standard, OOXML's use in Office would preclude that suite from being on the list of acceptable technologies for many of these mandates.

When Microsoft submitted OOXML to Ecma, another XML-based document format, ODF (Open Document Format), was midway through the ISO standards process. The ISO approved ODF as an international standard more than two years ago.

The OOXML fast-track process, and subsequent approval vote in the ISO, was attended by multiple complaints that was Microsoft acting unscrupulously, the standards process was not being implemented properly and the specification approved was too unwieldy to implement. As a result, the national bodies of Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela filed protests.

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