Open XML recovers from brief setback to ISO approval

Open XML has recovered from a setback it suffered last week on its road to become approved as an open standard by the ISO.

Microsoft's quest to have Open XML approved by the International Organization for Standards (ISO) as a global technology standard seems to have recovered from a setback it suffered a week ago, as both sides of the Open XML-ODF debate shore up arguments as the final vote to approve Open XML nears.

The executive committee for the International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), which represents U.S. interests in the ISO, on Thursday approved the draft specification of Open XML "with comments" after a technical committee that advises it last week failed to earn the two-thirds majority it needed to reach the same decision.

Predictably, Microsoft is counting this move as a victory, according to a blog entry by Doug Mahugh, a Microsoft technical evangelist.

"They'll reach a decision within the executive board on this proposed position by mid-August, which allows plenty of time for subsequent discussion or another vote if needed before the final U.S. position is due on Sept. 2," he wrote. The ISO is scheduled to vote on the Open XML that day.

In a press statement attributed to Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards, the company said the decision shows "positive momentum" behind ISO ratification of Open XML. "It reflects the importance of allowing users to choose the format that best meets their needs, and the fact that innovation and evolution will take place over time," according to the statement.

When the V1 committee could not come to an agreement over Open XML, it seemed that things would not bode well for an approval vote from the U.S. in the ISO. However, even if the U.S. comes down in favor of the spec, it still faces opposition from other countries that also get to vote, such as Italy and Portugal, which have complained about the approval process Microsoft used to rush Open XML through another international standards body, Ecma International, on its way to the ISO.

In the meantime, those who favor Open XML, led by Microsoft, and those who have misgivings about the technology mostly due to their interest in the rival file format Open Document Format for XML (ODF), are getting in some final comments for their respective sides. ODF has already been approved by the ISO as an international standard.

Ari Fishkind, an IBM spokesman, said there are still issues around some technical details of Open XML that did not get fixed in the fast-track process. Those include a glitch that makes spreadsheets in Open XML unable to calculate dates before 1900, and a bias toward the U.S. and other countries that adopt a Western way of thinking. "It is not geared toward an international community," he said.

For its part, IBM hopes that before the vote there will be as much "correct information" provided to the national bodies that vote in the ISO so they can make "an informed decision," Fishkind said.

Open XML's approval as a standard is considered key to helping Microsoft keep its 90-plus percent share among productivity software users worldwide. Some countries and U.S. states have either adopted or are eyeing plans to use only technologies considered to be open standards for use in their IT systems. Approval by the ISO in addition to the Ecma approval it already has would lend more weight to Open XML -- and thus Microsoft Office -- being a part of those systems.

Some in the industry are taking a middle ground on the Open XML-ODF debate and promoting both by emphasizing the idea of choice. Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC), which promotes neutral government procurement, standards and public research and development policies for software, said her group is promoting the existence of both ODF and Open XML as ISO standards because having only one global standard for document formats is limiting to end users.

"Technology is a rapidly developing area and if you standardize on one technology you could wind up losing out on functionality or applications that may develop in the future," she said.

ISC is run by CompTIA, a U.S.-based technology industry association, and has about 280 member companies and organizations. Microsoft is among them; however, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc., the two biggest proponents of ODF, are not.

Wyne said that the ISC does not support any kind of mandates by governments or public agencies about what kind of technology is run in their systems. Instead, the group believes the key focus should be interoperability between different kinds of technology.

"Our feeling is there are a number of ways to getting to interoperability, and open standards is just one in a number of those ways," she said.