Standard practice?

It’s hard to know where to start when discussing the merits – or otherwise – of Microsoft’s attempt to steer OOXML, its new XML-based file format for Office 2007, through the ISO (International Standards Organisation) ratification process. Despite the fact that the fog of war is now lifting a little, claims and counterclaims will rumble on, and what’s worse is that all the warring parties are deeply unlikely to ever agree on anything, which somewhat flies in the face of the whole purpose of the ISO standardisation process. With hindsight, maybe it was a false hope to believe that anything good could have been expected to emerge from such contentious positions, but that would overlook the reality that the previous Office XML standard went through very easily with only a few problems.

Standard practice?

For Microsoft, it’s clear that having a rival file format as the standard wasn’t a tenable commercial situation, so it had to get in there and get in there quick. To do this, it put the OOXML format forward through the fast-track procedure, to be considered by a committee named JTC 1. Fast-tracking is usually reserved for proposals that are already complete, and where there’s good consensus and agreement among all parties. ISO ratification takes place in five distinct steps, but the fast-track starts from step five, so it’s definitely a good way to get your proposal turned into a standard quickly. This would be fine, provided that consensus actually exists, so the signing-off could be a simple affair. With the OOXML format, it was never going to be a simple matter, because it was a far from simple proposal, one that supposedly ran to over 6,000 pages of documentation. Nevertheless, the committee worked its way through this paper mountain over the months and then came to a vote.

It’s now that things begin to get very murky, but one thing that’s quite clear is the outcome of that vote. JTC 1 has two criteria that must be met for a Fast Track Submission: two-thirds of the P- members (top rank members) must approve it, and no more than 25% of the total votes may be negative. In the first P-member vote, 17 said yes, nine abstained and 15 said no, which meant only 53% had approved it and so it failed to meet the necessary 66% pass rate. In the second vote, 51 approved, 18 abstained and 18 said no, which meant 26% disapproved. Now, 26% might be close to 25%, but it’s also a “no”, so overall it was a no vote.

Naturally, Microsoft’s PR team couldn’t take this lying down and its press release was a masterpiece of spin: “We are extremely delighted to see that 51 ISO members, representing 74% of the qualified votes, have already voiced their support for ISO ratification of Open XML, and that many others have indicated they will support ratification once their comments are resolved in the next phase of the ISO process,” said Tom Robertson, general manager for Interoperability and Standards at Microsoft Corp. “This preliminary vote is a milestone for the widespread adoption of the Open XML formats around the world for the benefit of millions of customers. Given how encouraging today’s results were, we believe that the final tally in early 2008 will result in the ratification of Open XML as an ISO standard.”

Does it actually matter whether OOXML becomes an ISO standard or not? Well, Microsoft obviously believes it does, and it isn’t hard to see why. There are many large organisations, especially in the governmental and public sector arenas, that wish to move over to a document format that’s fully open, which makes a great deal of sense if you want to ensure there’s no vendor lock-in. The downside is that such a standard has to represent everything you might encounter in your daily work in terms of application and file formats, and to do so faithfully in a fully documented way. If your tendering process specifies that only ISO-approved open document standards can be used, it really does matter to Microsoft that its own format is approved, as otherwise it will become very difficult to preserve the perception of Office 2007 as an acceptable document-creation platform in the public and government sectors.

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