Format battle takes shape as Kiwis fly in

Microsoft has direct representation on Kiwi delegation

Standards New Zealand delegates are heading to Geneva for the latest round of meetings in what has become a bitter dispute over document formats.

“Standards New Zealand is proud to be representing New Zealand at an international meeting on the development of a significant information technology standard”, Grant Thomas, chief operating officer of Standards New Zealand said in a statement today.

Thomas told Computerworld the three-person delegation is headed by Michelle Wessing, general manager of standards development at Standards NZ, who will travel with Colin Jackson, independent technology consultant, and Brett Roberts, director of innovation at Microsoft NZ.

New Zealand Open Source Society president Don Christie says he is not concerned about Microsoft having a direct representative on the delegation. He says Wessing is the head of the group and is independent, while Colin Jackson has also been very independent on the issues. He says it was about getting the right balance.

Christie has recently taken issue with the balance on Australia's two-person delegation, which includes a Microsoft consultant.

Delegations will be participating in a ballot resolution meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on 25-29 February, 2008. They will give their views on the draft international Standard for Microsoft's Office Open XML file formats, a proposed standard for word-processing documents, presentations and spreadsheets that is intended to be implemented by multiple applications on multiple platforms.

“The objective of the ballot resolution meeting (BRM) will be to review and seek consensus on possible modifications to the document in light of the comments received along with votes cast by national standards bodies in September 2007.

"Standards New Zealand voted against adoption of the specification because of stakeholder concerns about technical omissions, errors and inconsistencies within the draft standard as well as interoperability and intellectual property issues,” says Thomas.

The advisory group to Standards New Zealand is made up of representatives from Internet NZ, the NZ Open Source Society, IBM, Microsoft, a Microsoft partner, Archives New Zealand, the State Services Commission and the NZ Computer Society

Although OOXML has already been approved by an industry standards body, Ecma International, the ISO designation is key, since governments look to the ISO when choosing technical standards.

OOXML failed to become an ISO standard during a vote last September, but it has another chance if enough countries can agree on the revisions. Those countries will then have one month to vote on the new specification after the BRM.

But Microsoft faces stiff opposition from companies and industry groups behind OpenDocument Format (ODF), which was approved by the ISO in 2006 as a standard. Those opponents contend that having more than one document standard makes software purchasing decisions harder for organizations.

In fact, those opponents are staging their own conference in the same venue in Geneva as the ISO meeting.

OpenForum Europe, an organisation supporting ODF and open standards, has invited prominent OOXML critics and advocates of open standards to speak. They include Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google and Hakon Wium Lie, chief technology officer of Opera, the Oslo-based browser developer.

The timing or venue choice wasn't a coincidence, says Graham Taylor, chief executive of OpenForum Europe. The organisation has also timed its sessions to not conflict so BRM delegates can attend.

The shrewd timing is clearly aimed at sinking OOXML, which critics say is an overly complex standard and favours Microsoft in intricate, technical ways, even though the specification is open.

"We think there are a much wider set of issues that need to be considered by the national bodies when they come to make their vote," Taylor says.

Microsoft believes there is room for more than one standard. "We do not fundamentally believe that you have a uniform single view of technology ... in order to have interoperability," says Jason Matusow, senior director of interoperability, on Wednesday during a company event with journalists in London.

Microsoft also cites several projects under way to create translators to move formats from OOXML to ODF, and vice versa. However, Microsoft argues that the features of OOXML, a version of which is now used in Office 2007, are richer than ODF.

The meeting of the two sides at one venue has led some to speculate about heightened tension around what's already been an acrimonious debate. But Taylor says Microsoft representatives will attend OpenForum Europe sessions, and that there won't be any "heckling."

Taylor says he has assured the BRM conveners there will be no trouble. Press and observers can attend OpenForum Europe sessions, but the BRM is open only to official delegates from the 87 countries participating.

After the BRM is over, countries will look at the revisions to OOXML and then cast a vote. To become an ISO standard, a specification must win the support of two-thirds of national standards bodies that participated in work on the proposal, known as P-members. It also must receive the support of three-quarters of all voting members.

During the September vote, OOXML failed, receiving only 53% of the voting P-members, below the 67% needed. Among voting members, OOXML received only 74%, 1% shy of the mark.

This time around, countries are allowed to change their votes, adding another element of uncertainty around OOXML's fate. If the format is not approved, it means Microsoft might be forced to rethink its strategy around document formats if it wants government IT contracts.

Either way, the sheer dominance of Microsoft's Office suite means some version of OOXML will be used for years to come. The company says its partners are already using it in their own applications, but ODF supporters counter no vendor has come close to fully implementing the 6,000-page specification.

One of Microsoft's partners is Fractal Edge, a UK company that makes software that builds visual representations of complex financial data, which it calls "fractal maps." But displaying the fractal maps in older Excel versions required sending an additional configuration file for the map to be compatible with Microsoft's with binary file format, says Gervase Clifton-Bligh, vice president of product strategy.

The company has written an add-in for Excel 2007 to display the maps. OOXML container files can easily hold additional elements such as graphics — or map configuration files.

Whether OOXML is a standard won't make a huge difference in the company's business since 100% of their customers use Excel, Clifton-Bligh said. But if other companies store their data in Open XML — even if they are using a different spreadsheet program — it would be easier to move their data into Excel, he says.

"We won't make an add-in for every spreadsheet," Clifton-Bligh says.

The British Library isn't taking a stand on whether OOXML should become an ISO standard or not, says Richard Boulderstone, director of e-Strategy.

The library is facing the long-term problem of how to continue to make its digital collection available. Universal agreement and implementation of a standard is most helpful, Boulderstone says. Also important is how a standard is built into products.

"You can create any kind of standard but there's always going to be different implementations," he says, adding that those characteristics can affect how a document is archived and viewed in the future.

Following the BRM Standards New Zealand will again consult with the advisory group before making a recommendation to the Standards Council who will then make the decision on whether the New Zealand vote should be changed. This decision will be made on 25 March.

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