Skeptics fear MS move may stall ODF standards adoption

In a move some think has the potential to stall the adoption of OpenDocument Format (ODF) as an international standard, Microsoft Corp. has joined a group that takes part in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) voting process to standardize ODF.

Microsoft has joined the V1 Text Processing: Office and Publishing Systems Interface group within the International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), a Washington-based organization. INCITS is involved in recommending what technologies should become ISO standards, and the V1 Text Processing group in particular deals with office document formats.

ODF is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and is supported by Microsoft rivals IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., among other companies. They want to see ODF adopted internationally as the standard for office documents and software that creates and manages these documents, such as Microsoft’s popular Office suite and rivals such as Star Office from Sun. The government of Massachusetts in the U.S. already has put in motion a plan to migrate its documents to ODF from proprietary formats, a process it hopes to implement beginning in January 2007.

Microsoft, however, is committed to promoting the document format it created for Office, called Office Open XML, as the international standard. In November, the company submitted Open XML to the ISO standards process to make it more attractive for organizations or institutions that insist on supporting open standards.

Pamela Jones, author of the popular Groklaw blog (, called attention to Microsoft’s participation in the INCITS committee on her blog last week. She said Microsoft’s presence on the committee could stall the standardization process for ODF, at least until Open XML makes it through the same ISO process.

“All they would have to do to slow ODF down, I’m thinking, is ensure lots of discussion, review, documentation, exploration, etc. to arrange that ISO can’t ratify ODF” until Open XML also is approved, she wrote in her blog entry.

Andrew Updegrove, an open-source advocate and attorney with Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston, also wrote in his blog that Microsoft’s motive for joining a small subcommittee is suspect.

“Why does Microsoft want to be on this small subcommittee?” he wrote. “After all, although it has been a member of OASIS for years, it decided not to take part in the ODF Technical Committee, and has also declined to support ODF.”

Through its public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom Inc., Microsoft denied that it joined INCITS to subvert the adoption of ODF as a standard.

In a statement attributed to Jason Matusow, Microsoft’s director of standards affairs, the company said its representative to the INCITS committee, Jim Thatcher, will have no impact on the ODF standardization voting process. Instead, he joined the group to put himself in good standing to promote Open XML as that standard moves through the ISO process.

In an e-mail message on Monday, Groklaw’s Jones expressed concern that Microsoft will work to stall the standards process of ODF. “I think Microsoft is a big bully trying to kick sand in ODF’s face,” she said.

Microsoft does not appear to be backing down from its support of Open XML over ODF. Last week the company set the stage for a long-term battle over document formats by forming a technical community of developers to promote Open XML, called the Open XML Formats Developer Group. The group rivals the ODF Alliance, an organization spearheaded by Sun and IBM to promote ODF.

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