Microsoft's OOXML provokes standards turmoil in France

The French give OOXML the thumbs down

France seems set to oppose adoption of Microsoft's document format Office Open XML as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), although the French Association for Standardization, Afnor, has not yet announced its decision.

Microsoft offered its OOXML specification to standards body ECMA, paving the way for the file format to be fast-tracked through the ISO standardization process. ISO has asked national standards bodies around the world to give their verdict on OOXML by Sept. 2.

At Afnor, the consensus at the end of two stormy meetings on Aug. 28 and 29 was to oppose ISO's standardization of OOXML by voting "no with comments," according to several people present at the meetings.

Microsoft, notably, disagreed with this consensus, and sought for the French vote to ISO to be an abstention.

Marc Mosse director of legal and public affairs for Microsoft France, was emphatic that Afnor had not yet taken a decision.

According to people present at the meetings, Afnor said it had received 93 letters supporting Microsoft's position, outside the normal procedure for consultation. Among the organizations said to have sent these letters are the bank Caisses d'Epargne, optical glass maker Essilor and French IT user group Cigref. Representatives of Caisses d'Epargne were unable to say whether the group had sent such a letter.

Didier Lambert, president of Cigref and CIO at Essilor, denied that Essilor had written to Afnor on this subject, but said that Cigref had written to the standards body.

"Essilor took part in the work of ECMA on the standardization of OOXML by that body, because we wanted to encourage this move, unusual for Microsoft, towards standardization," he said.

Lambert repeated the position of Cigref that the club simply represents the point of view of IT users based on their daily experience in the field -- a field dominated today, in office productivity software, by Microsoft.

For Lambert, "Standardization is a move in the right direction, that of interoperability, but we should not forget the immense installed base. ... It's really annoying that each vendor, whether they are supporters of open source or of Microsoft, only thinks of defending its own patch without concern for the interests of users," he said.

Officially, Cigref does not support any one standard, but calls for all standards to be interoperable so that the market can choose freely, without one vendor attaining or maintaining a dominant position.

The battle for standardization of OOXML is just one episode in the war between two competing office document formats built on a common technical foundation: a set of XML files zipped into a container.

On one side, Open Document Format (ODF) has already been adopted as an international standard by ISO, and is used by a number of open-source applications, notably OpenOffice.org. It has the support of players such as Google, Sun Microsystems and IBM, and also of the open-source community, including many specialist French systems integrators. ODF was built from scratch as a pure XML format.

On the other side is OOXML, proposed by Microsoft and with the possibility of integrating binary files such as formats used by older versions of Microsoft Office. OOXML is, so far, only used natively by Office 2007. Microsoft plans to incorporate a number of business XML schemas so as to make the Office suite the front end of a whole information system.

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