Office Open XML standardisation to drag into next year

Rather than resolving the issue once and for all, the vote will raise technical and other questions about the specification

The long and contentious battle to standardise Office Open XML won't end this weekend when ISO member countries cast votes, but is likely headed for a special meeting where specific questions regarding the 6,000-page specification will need to be resolved.

The vote, slated for September 2, is one of the last phases of nearly five months of work by the International Organisation for Standardisation's (ISO) on a proposal to standardise Ecma-376 Office Open XML (ooXML). The specification is derived from Microsoft's Office Open XML, which is the default file format in Office 2007.

Ecma deemed Office Open XML a standard in December, and the ISO has been working on a fast-track proposal to consider doing the same. The issue has polarised the industry with detractors questioning Microsoft's true intentions.

The ISO has already approved the OpenDocument Format (ODF) as a standard, giving it credibility among organisations that prefer standards-based technology, and Microsoft is gunning to land the same designation for the specification it presented to Ecma.

Critics say with all the politicking going on from both sides that handicapping the September 2 outcome is near impossible.

On Thursday, Microsoft admitted that an employee at its Swedish subsidiary offered monetary compensation to partners for voting in favour of Sweden supporting ooXML during the September 2 vote.

But rather than resolving the issue once and for all, the vote will raise technical and other questions about the specification that the ISO, Microsoft and Ecma may have to answer at a special week-long meeting slated for early 2008.

The September 2 vote will be among the 140 ISO member countries, and it is from that process that questions will arise regarding technical and other aspects of ooXML, also known as DIS 29500 at the ISO.

Those questions will come from member countries that vote "no with comments." The subcommittees that work under the Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1), which is responsible for information technology standardization at ISO, are not required to consider comments from countries that vote "yes with comments."

Microsoft has been encouraging skeptical countries to cast such votes and promising that their questions will be answered even though the formal process does not require those answers.

It is unknown how many countries will vote "no with comments," but Brazil for one has already said its "no" vote includes 62 comments. India and China also have said they will vote no with comments. New Zealand also voted no last week.

If the comments warrant the ISO's special Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) it will be held February 25-29, 2008 in Geneva, but there is no guarantee that it will be needed. And if it is, it could run much longer than a week depending on the number of comments.

"The positive thing about the process itself is that all the technical concerns and defects [in the specification] come out," says Marino Marcich, the executive director of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) Alliance.

The Alliance recently has been helping states draft open document legislation in addition to speaking out against the standardisation of ooXML and battling Microsoft to control the message concerning open document standards and the ISO process.

After the September 2 vote, consideration on holding a BRM can take one of two courses. It can be held to address questions whose answers could change "no" votes to "yes" and possibly foster a re-vote in the spring, or the BRM can be cancelled for one of two reasons.

Cancellation will happen if the concerns surrounding ooXML are deemed unresolvable. The other reason would be the lack of comments that are required to be addressed.

The latter was the case when ODF was approved by the ISO as a standard in May 2006. But clearly that will not happen with ooXML because some countries have already indicated they plan to vote "no with comments."

The former is a possibility if the comments raised highlight that the specification is unworkable as a standard. Precedence for that occurring came just last year with the C++/CLI (Common Language Infrastructure) specification that also was developed by Microsoft and standardised by Ecma. The ISO ultimately did not standardise C++/CLI.

The conclusion is that whatever happens September 2 and whatever spin is put on the results by Microsoft or the opponents to ooXML, the question of ISO standardisation is far from over.

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