US organisation edging to Microsoft's Open XML support

The executive board of INCITS voted to approve a motion for Open XML

In a reversal, the American representative to the ISO standards body is now tentatively supporting the approval of Microsoft's Office Open XML document format as an open standard this year.

The executive board of the Washington D.C.-based International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) voted on Thursday to approve a "Yes with comments" motion for Open XML, the native document format in Office 2007.

Twelve members voted yes, three voted no, and one abstained. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass.

The vote still does not finalise INCITS' position, acknowledged Jason Matusow, Microsoft's senior director for intellectual property and interoperability, in a blog post on Friday.

According to the group's drawn-out bureaucratic process, the INCITS executive board will meet one last time on August 29th before it must submit its final vote to the International Organisation for Standardisation on September 2nd.

Calls and emails to Jennifer Garner, director of the standards programs for INCITS, and Frank Farance, an INCITS executive board member, were not immediately returned.

Still, the latest result is a bit of a surprise, as Open XML had failed to overcome opposition during two earlier stages of deliberation by INCITS.

In mid-July, the V1 technical committee advising the executive board of INCITS failed to approve Open XML, which was put onto an ISO fast track approval process in March.

Then earlier this month, the executive board of INCITS failed to pass a resolution in favour of Open XML.

This time around, the motion, which indicates support for Open XML while allowing the attachment of non-binding criticism and comments, won the support of vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, EMC, Intel, Sony Electronics, Lexmark International, Apple, which is supporting Open XML in its just-released iWork '08 productivity software, and Microsoft.

Other supporters include governmental bodies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, semi-governmental standards groups such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and GS1, and a trade association, the Electronic Industries Alliance.

Members voting against the motion include IBM, Oracle, and Farance.

The states of swing

Four executive board members swung to support Open XML from their prior 'no' votes. Those four are GS1, a non-profit group that is best known for overseeing the Universal Product Code (UPC) stamped on retail products, printer maker Lexmark, NIST, and the Department of Defense.

While none of the reversing members submitted comments this time, their earlier comments show that many were unhappy with the lack of consensus within the INCITs' board over Open XML — and that they would likely support Open XML if these conflicts could be resolved.

For instance, Lexmark called for "the general letters of support and nonsupport should be removed as those items are not actionable by the JTC1 ballot resolution process and provide a conflicting view of the US position. Upon correction of the US ballot comments, Lexmark will vote to support the approval of DIS 29500 as an international standard."

Similarly, the DOD said that its 'no' vote was, in part, "based on the requirement to first resolve existing comments."

Quality questions fire no votes

IBM continued to vote no, citing what it claimed were more than 1,700 technical problems identified with the would-be Open XML standard.

"If a proposal with this low of a quality level is approved as-is, then by what criteria can we disapprove of any proposal in the future?" the IBM representative wrote. "Will we only consider political and market factors? If so, what is our protection from antitrust conflicts?"

Oracle, which also voted no, wrote, "The appropriate way to move forward is to make approval of the specification conditional upon the satisfactory resolution of the large number of issues identified during the public review period."

The United States joins Germany as national members of ISO that look more likely to support Open XML when ISO ballots are due on September 2nd.

A key technical committee in India, meanwhile, voted earlier this week not to support Open XML, though that decision can still be overturned.

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