Format war erupts again as international vote nears

A second vote on whether to accept Microsoft's Open Office XML document format as an official standard is slated for March

Microsoft and the open source movement are shaping up to do battle once again over document-format standards.

A second vote on whether to accept Microsoft’s Open Office XML document format as an official standard is slated for March, with a preceding International Standards Organisation (ISO) ballot resolution meeting (BRM) to be held from February 25-29.

OOXML lost the ISO vote in September. New Zealand voted against accepting the format as a standard.

Matthew Cruickshank, a local developer of open source conversion software and part of the working group for e-government web guidelines, says one of the main concerns of OOXML is that the format is lacking basic accessibility features, such as the ability to link between form fields and their labels and the ability to set a logical navigation order.

He also says that if OOXML is accepted as a standard, decisions will be based on the misconception that other vendors can now fully implement and compete with Microsoft Office.

“OOXML doesn’t define enough to be interoperable, and what it does define is limited in scope to exclude essential parts of the Microsoft Office formats,” he says, adding that OOXML excludes macros, scripting, OLE serialisation, .Ink files, “anything that is application-defined” within the standard.

While OOXML has improved on older binary formats, it will not yet bring the competition people might expect of an ISO standard, says Cruickshank.

“The full definition of Microsoft Office files unfortunately remains a secret,” he says. “The ISO may well approve OOXML but this discussion about Office file-formats that has occurred over the last year has helped people understand how much money is wasted in file-format secrets.”

Each country’s national body (NB) will attend the BRM in Geneva next month. Each NB will indicate whether it is likely to change its vote in March, says Cruickshank. New Zealand’s NB, Standards New Zealand, is sending three delegates.

To be approved as an ISO standard, a proposal must pass two voting criteria — it must be supported by two-thirds of voting national standards bodies that participated in work on the proposal, as well as winning the votes of three-quarters of all voting members.

Cruickshank attended a recent symposium on the issues surrounding the proposed OOXML document format standard, held at the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales. Representatives from Microsoft, IBM, Google, the Open Source Industry Australia, Standards Australia, the National Archives of Australia, and ISO also attended the symposium, reports Computerworld Australia. In addition to Cruickshank’s remarks, the discussions raised further concerns about OOXML.

Google is concerned that interoperability between document formats would be restricted by the addition of the OOXML format alongside the current ISO document standard, Open Document Format.

Google would like to see further development of ODF instead of standardising a new format, primarily to enable the ability to convert old files to the latest format in full fidelity, says Lars Rasmussen, a software developer for Google Australia and one of the inventors of Google Maps.

But Microsoft disagrees that the adoption of an additional document format standard would hinder business practices. The market has already demonstrated a need for multiple formats to address the varying needs of customers, says Microsoft platform strategy manager, Sarah Bond.

Jeff Waugh, of Open Source Industry Australia, voiced his concerns over the relatively short length of time the complex standard has been under review, compared to the extended standardisation process ODF underwent, Computerworld Australia reports. Microsoft’s OOXML standard has not followed a similar review process to other standards, which could have the potential to lead to a “lock-in” to Microsoft’s format, says Waugh, adding that OOXML will become “pretty much administered by Microsoft alone”.

But Microsoft’s Bond pointed to ODF following a similar path when its administration was conducted within OASIS (Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) before being submitted for ISO approval, and said this path will improve OOXML’s ability to address the various comments from national bodies taking part in the process.

Additional reporting by Andrew Hendry, Computerworld Australia

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