The votes are
in, with Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) format gaining
international standard status. Both Microsoft
International jumped the gun a bit by proclaiming victory a day before
the official announcement, but the writing was on the wall since the
balloting closed on March 29. There are now two competing standards for
office document formats that have been approved by the International
Organization for Standardization (ISO): OOXML and Open Document Format
The most recent vote was an opportunity for the national bodies to
change their vote from September based on the outcome of the Ballot
Resolution Meeting (BRM). The September vote was relatively close but
OOXML did not pass, which led Ecma and Microsoft to try and address the
3,500 comments (1,000+ after eliminating duplicates) made by participating
countries. The comments and the Microsoft/Ecma solutions to them were
discussed during the five-day BRM meeting in Geneva in
When the BRM was announced, many wondered how that number of comments could be handled
in a week-long meeting, unfortunately the answer is: not very well. There
was simply too much to cover, so the majority of comments—mostly substantive
issues with OOXML—didn't get discussed and were voted on en
masse. The majority of participants abstained (18) or failed to vote (4), with six
voting to accept the changes proposed by Microsoft/Ecma and four voting
against. This allowed the BRM process to complete, leaving it up to the
national bodies to decide whether to change their September votes.
was again fairly close, but a net change of seven votes from
"disapprove" to "approve" moved OOXML into approval. 24 of 32 votes from
Participating countries were for approval, which is beyond the
two-thirds majority required. Also, 86% of the Observing countries voted
to approve, which is above the 75% required. In both cases, abstentions
are not counted.
At some level, the outcome should not be surprising. Microsoft put a huge
effort into ensuring OOXML standardization. Some would claim that they
"gamed" the system—it's pretty clear they did—what's less clear
is why, and what they plan to do next. Their tactics have been questionable,
which leads many to believe they have an ulterior motive.
To start with, Ecma International essentially rubber-stamped a
"specification" that Microsoft presented as ECMA-376.
Then it was introduced to ISO on the "fast-track" process, which is meant
for mature standards that have few gray areas or controversial parts.
Whatever else can be said of OOXML, nearly anyone that is not firmly in the
Microsoft camp can see that it is in no way mature, clear, or
non-controversial—it is flawed at multiple levels.
One of the most puzzling things about the process is how we have ended up
with two standards. In general, standards are supposed to be, well,
standard, allowing multiple implementations that use the standard,
but innovate in other areas. HTML and HTTP are standards, whereas Firefox, Safari,
Konqueror, Opera, and Internet Explorer all implement those
standards—some more faithfully than others—but
provide different sets of features on top. Microsoft's argument for
multiple standards is a
disingenuous one: choice.
It would seem that Microsoft wants to paint this as a VHS vs. Betamax
battle, where the consumer is able to choose the one best suited for their
needs. But, both of the video recording standards were proprietary, with
many arguing that the technically inferior choice "won". Microsoft is, of
course, no stranger to having its choices—again arguably technically
inferior and generally pushed through its near-monopoly on the desktop—come out on top.
One might be able to argue that competition between the standards is
consumer-friendly if there is a level playing field. In order for that to
happen, Microsoft would have to implement and deploy the competitive
standard—something it has clearly said it will not do. It is hard to
see how customers are going to be able to determine which of the two
formats is "better" when most of them will only be given one choice.
Many also fear that free software (and other non-Microsoft proprietary)
implementations of the standard will not be fully interoperable with the de
facto standard because of specification inadequacies or patents. Many, including ODF editor Patrick Durusau
have called for OOXML to be passed so that it can be clarified. Setting
aside the obvious cart-before-the-horse problem, standards bodies are
notoriously slow—it has been more than a year for the fast-track
approval of OOXML for example—expecting that clarifications can be
made through that process is somewhat alarming. More likely, changes will
be made in the format emitted by various Microsoft products and then
shoehorned into the standard some months or years later.
The claim that billions of documents exist in OOXML, which leads many to
believe it should be adopted, is particularly galling to many. There is no
OOXML standard yet—the final document has not yet been produced—but
that is a minor issue. The fact is that even though a form of OOXML is
available in recent Microsoft products, it is not the default and most
documents have not been stored using it. The billions of documents are
mostly stored in various versions of the proprietary DOC format that non-Microsoft users have
been struggling to read for years.
The opponents of OOXML had their own share of misbehavior during this
process. It is pretty unlikely that everyone who favored OOXML passage is
in the pay of Microsoft, for example. The doom and gloom predictions of
what will happen have sometimes been over the top as well. Free software
is not about restricting choices—if folks want to store
documents in OOXML, that is their decision.
So, what will happen to ODF? To many it looks like a truly vendor-neutral
standard—warts and all—will be shoved aside by a truly
vendor-specific one. Andy Updegrove, who has followed this process closely
and fairly objectively in his weblog, sees
things a bit differently. There is still a long way to go before OOXML
supplants ODF, if it ever does, according to Updegrove:
That answer is this: if anyone had asked me to predict in August of 2005
(the date of the initial Massachusetts decision that set the ODF ball
rolling) how far ODF might go and what impact it might have, I would never
have guessed that it would have gone so far, and had such impact, in so
short a period of time. I think it's safe to say that whatever happens
with the OOXML vote is likely to have little true impact at all on the
future success of ODF compliant products.
It is possible that Microsoft is changing its ways, but longtime Microsoft
watchers, especially those who have been harmed by their tactics in the
past, remain skeptical. One would guess Microsoft will be on its best
behavior for the next two months while objections to the approval can still
be raised. After that, we will see—over time—whether this is
yet another lock-in play or whether they wish to play fair in the
document storage arena. Every move they make will be closely scrutinized; there
are risks to reverting to their previous behaviors. But, if we end up with a
truly open standard, free of patent nonsense, and implementable by all, it
doesn't really matter whether it is OOXML or ODF.
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