Microsoft Office Open XML gets ISO go-ahead

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday said its successful efforts to win ISO approval for its XML-based document format will bring benefits to enterprise IT managers, while supporters of the rival Open Document Format saw little but confusion and incompatibility ahead.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) announced that its members have approved adoption of a draft standard based on Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) document format . Microsoft has been trying to get ISO approval for OOXML ever since the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Belgian government decided to mandate the use of Open Document Format (ODF), an ISO standard supported by IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. and used in software such as OpenOffice.

The standard was approved by 86 per cent of all countries voting, and by 75 per cent of those countries participating in JTC1, the joint committee of the ISO and the International Electrotechnical Committee that organized the vote, according to a number of sources. To pass, it required the approval of 75 per cent of all countries voting, and 66 per cent of those countries participating in the committee, known as P-members.

Canada was among the eight P-member countries who voted “disapproval” in the process.

John Weigelt, Microsoft Canada’s CTO in Mississauga, Ont., said there were 79 comments raised to the company from Canada, which were all addressed by the time the ISO balloting occurred. Although there is still a two-month window to appeal the vote until June, Weigelt said there will be a continued focus from Microsoft on improving the standard as it gets adopted by customers.

“In Canada, we placed a lot of importance on giving comments back to the project editor that they could action,” he said. “Instead of saying that something didn’t make sense, we would say, perhaps if you did X, Y and Z (it would improve). We spent a lot of time doing that kind of work.”

Doug Heintzman, director of Lotus strategy for IBM Software Group, immediately decried Microsoft’s OOXML victory, calling the specification “rife with errors” and a lot of lingering questions about intellectual property of documents based on it. He wasn’t surprised Microsoft won out, however.

“The system is designed to approve things,” he said. “This particular specification presented the community with some really significant challenges because it had never dealt with the kind of politics and money and lobbying that were invested in it.”

Previously in ComputerWorld Canada

Format wars: Redmond vs. Big Blue

Microsoft claims that it has made 98 per cent of the changes to OOXML that were suggested as part of the ISO process. Tom Robertson, Microsoft’s general manager of Interoperability and Standards, noted that the national bodies decided to break the specification up into parts that refer to different document formats, such as text or spreadsheets, and parts that deal with backwards-compatibility, a major sticking point for users. He also maintained that users will be able to use both OOXML and ODF, but for different purposes.

“This is a complex technology, that’s just the nature of it. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be standardized,” Robertson said. “What is important is that specification be in a form that makes it as easy as possible to work with as an independent software vendor.”

Heintzman rejected Microsoft’s argument about providing a choice of standards. “That provides absolutely no value for consumers,” he said. “When I go down to the local Circuit City, I don’t want to choose between Blu-Ray and HDD, I want to choose between Sony and Panasonic. The underlying standard should be completely obscured to me.”

Francis Dion, a Microsoft ISV partner with Toronto-based Xpertdoc, said OOXML will close the gap between what IT departments have had to do with documents and what users want to do themselves. Xpertdoc offers a product called Xpertdoc Studio that generates Word documents. He said companies often struggle over how to create everything from invoices to documents for regulators, a problem he likened to the Y2K issue for banks in the 1990s.

“If you ask an IT person to come up with a report, they have a specific idea is that what is. They might use Crystal Reports or some other special IT-centric solution,” he said. “If you ask anyone else, it’s Microsoft Word (they want) and they’ll start typing.” OOXML will offer such organizations more consistency, he said.

The ODF camp isn’t sold. Deep Vision Inc. of Dartmouth, N.S. is a member of the ODF alliance, but its director of software engineering, Alvin Beach, said the firm often has to convert documents into a Microsoft format. Depending on how the OOXML standard is implemented, those chores could get worse, he said.

“I think that Microsoft could have not gone the standard route and it would still have been accepted as a de facto standard,” he said. “If it’s Office, people don’t like to change.”

Robertson said Microsoft doesn’t expect the ISO vote to please everyone, but urged competitors to focus more on customers than the standards themselves. “Some of this is just commercial squabbling. There are some voices in the community that will never say a kind word about Open XML because it’s not in their perceived commercial interest to do so.”

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