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Open XML standard war grows heated


The day is fast approaching when the comment and voting period for ISO/IEC DIS 29500, the draft ISO specification based upon Microsoft’s Office Open XML formats, will either be approved or not. As Sept. 2 comes closer, Microsoft appears to be stuffing the ballot boxes of some countries’ ISO organizations while open-source and standard organizations are firing back with furious words.

In Sweden, 23 new companies, all of which were Microsoft partners, joined the Swedish Standards Institute at literally the group’s closing meeting on the subject and were allowed to vote in favor of making Microsoft’s Open XML a standard. One anti-Open XML attendee said that Sweden’s vote had been hijacked.

It wasn’t just the forces that were arrayed against Open XML that cried foul. A pro Open XML supporter, Wictor Wilén, reported, “We all entered the meeting at the last possible minute, and we all was signed in to the meeting.”

Then, “starting with IBM, a number of representatives ran out of the conference room mumbling and cursing when they realized in which direction the vote would go—and the vote result was clear to most of us.” The vote was a forgone conclusion. “The vote went quick, and it was 26 votes for yes and six for no.”

Similar Microsoft vote-stuffing activities have also been reported in Denmark and Norway.

Microsoft also released a Microsoft-commissioned study on Aug. 25, by IDC, on “Adoption of Document Standards.” It contains such statements as “Organizations do not put emphasis on discussions about the ‘openness’ of standards. Instead, more practical aspects are rated highly: Cost is very important as is the ability to have an easy transition of existing documents to a new standard.” Since many organizations use Microsoft Office, the clear implication is that Open XML is the better standardization choice.

Andrew “Andy” Updegrove, a partner with Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a Boston law firm, and the editor of, rhetorically asked, “The OOXML Vote: How Bad Can It Get? (Keep Counting).” From where he stands, it can get very bad indeed.

Updegrove opens by quoting Microsoft’s director of corporate standards Jason Matusow on Microsoft’s attempt to turn its format into an international standard, “There is no question that all over the world the competing interests in the Open XML standardization process are going to use all tactics available to them within the rules.”

Updegrove then reports that there is a “sudden surge of interest among ISO members in upgrading their privileges to ‘P’ status, which will entitle to them (just in time) to a more influential vote on OOXML.” He continued, “When I first noted that I had heard concerns over upgrading at the global vote level, only two nations had upgraded. When I wrote about it the second time, that number had risen to six. It’s now only a few days later, and the number has risen to nine (bear in mind that the original number was only thirty). And there are still a few days left during which stealth countries, their votes already taken, can make the cut. Where will it all end?”

His fear is that it will end when Microsoft has manipulated the process to the point where Open XML will become a standard. “As someone who has spent a great part of my life working to support open standards over the past 20 years, I have to say that this is the most egregious, and far-reaching, example of playing the system to the advantage of a single company that I have ever seen. Breathtaking, in fact. That’s assuming, of course, that I am right in supposing that all of these newbie countries vote ‘yes.'”

He assumes, as you might guess, they will vote for Microsoft. Other countries, such as the U.S. and Germany, have already voted yes for Open XML.

Against Microsoft and its supporters, open-source and standard organizations are fighting with words. The Linux Foundation, which heretofore has not entered into the fray, is now calling upon the national bodies that have not yet cast their votes to vote “No, with comments.”

The LF explained its venture outside of Linux matters by stating that “central to the mission of the Linux Foundation is the creation of standards that become widely adopted. Therefore, the Linux Foundation is not only familiar with, but has a vested interest in, the preservation of the validity and integrity of the global standards adoption process. When that process works well, everyone wins. The modern world has become utterly dependent upon technology, and therefore upon the ability of standards organizations to provide interoperability and other open standards as well. With the conversion of paper documents to digital formats, the world has also become utterly dependent upon the ability of those documents to be accessed in the future. Creation of documents in proprietary formats at best jeopardizes that ability and at worst guarantees that easy access in the future will be impossible.”

Updegrove, it should be noted, recently became a legal adviser to the LF.

The LF statement concluded, “Finally, the Linux Foundation notes that there already exists an ISO/IEC standard intended for a similar purpose—the Open Document Format—that has been implemented in at least a dozen products, both open source as well as proprietary. These products have been developed and released by multiple vendors (including several Linux Foundation members). While the current voting in ISO/IEC JTC1 is based upon the technical merits and issues relating to OOXML, the Linux Foundation believes that the marketplace would be better served by all vendors—including Microsoft—uniting around the implementation and further development of a single, common specification.”

The Linux Desktop Architects have also taken a public stand against making Open XML a standard. John Cherry, the global initiative manager, explains why technically speaking Open XML is not standard worthy. “OOXML is a direct port of a single vendor’s binary document formats. … It lists a large number of ‘Compatibility Settings’ for legacy applications (i.e. footnoteLayoutLikeWW8, autoSpaceLikeWord95, useWord97LineBreakRules, etc.) which would be difficult for other developers to implement and hardly what you would find in an aspirational, consolidated best practices document. There are literally 100s of technical flaws that should be addressed before standardizing OOXML, including continued use of binary code tied to platform-specific features, propagating bugs in MS-Office into the standard, proprietary units, references to proprietary/confidential tags, unclear IP and patent rights.”

So from where Cherry sits, while the Open XML may be standard material someday for now, “OOXML is simply not ready to become an ISO standard.”

Speaking for Google, Jeremy Allison, the well-known Samba architect, and Dan Kegel, a Google staff software engineer, said, “Google is concerned about the potential adoption of Microsoft’s Office Open XML format as an ISO standard. Google supports open standards and the Open Document Format an existing ISO standard that has been a driver for innovation. We do not think it is beneficial to introduce an alternative standard when the Open Document Format already meets the common definitions of an open standard, has received ISO approval and is in wide use around the world.”

The pair added, “Multiple incompatible standards are a bad thing for customer choice, as purchasers of Betamax video recorders discovered to their cost,” while “Multiple implementations of a single standard are good for both the industry and for customers.”

Some countries, such as Brazil, China, India and Canada, have already announced that they have voted against Open XML. The final result on whether Open XML will make the grade as an ISO standard will be announced on Sept. 2.

It’s possible that there will not be enough Yes votes and enough No with Comments votes that the ISO won’t be able to give the proposed standard a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If that happens, there will be an ISO Ballot Resolution Meeting on Feb. 19 through 25 in Geneva, Switzerland. There, either a decision will be reached on the Open XML as it stands or revisions will be made to it. In that case, the revised standard would then be voted on.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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