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The latest round in the battle for office document formats has gone against Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) submission. It certainly won't be the last we hear about it, as there is another vote in February, but it does, at least, slow down the fast-track proposal for making the format an international standard. The process has been anything but regular, with allegations of ballot box stuffing in Sweden and last minute voting class changes by eleven countries. These kinds of shenanigans do very little to enhance the reputation of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) nor do they promote confidence in their standards.
The vote, which closed 2 September, was made by members of the Joint Technical Committee, Information Technology (JTC1). Each country which is a member of ISO and wishes to join, can be either a Participating ("P") or Observing ("O") member of the committee. In order to pass, the proposal must get two-thirds support of the P members and no more than one-quarter "no" votes amongst both P and O members. In both cases, abstentions are removed before calculating the ratios.
The results, announced on 4 September, were 53% "yes" votes by P members and 74% "yes" votes by P and O members, which fails both tests, though either failing is all that is required to defeat the measure. Many of the votes, on both sides, were made "with comments". The comments specify portions of the OOXML spec that need clarification or change before it can be ratified.
Those comments will be passed on to the Ecma International, sponsor of the OOXML standardization proposal, to propose resolutions to the comments. Ecma is also the organization that rubber-stamped OOXML as a standard last year. They have until mid-January 2008 to submit the proposed changes and the committee members have until the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in late February to review and discuss them. Microsoft's Brian Jones estimated there would be in the neighborhood of 10,000 comments, many probably duplicates. How a committee is supposed to analyze and handle that many resolutions, in a week-long meeting, is unclear.
If enough of the "no" votes are satisfied that their comments have been addressed at the meeting, they can change their votes to yes. If that vote takes place, it will be the P members in February who get to vote. It is quite possible that, similar to the run-up to this vote, O members will suddenly decide to switch to P members. At this point, OOXML proponents know roughly how many votes they need.
Andy Updegrove has been following the approval process closely in his Standards Blog and reported on eleven countries upgrading from O to P status in the two weeks before the voting closed. Whether Microsoft is behind this sudden interest by these countries can only be speculated upon, but nine of them voted yes, one no, and one abstained. Regardless of why they felt the need to jump into the voting at the last minute, it certainly seems fishy.
If the vote fails at the BRM, we still may not have seen the last of OOXML as a proposed international standard. All of this effort has been to "fast-track" the proposal. Ecma and Microsoft can still submit it for approval under the regular, lengthier, standardization process. That could easily take several years, which is why there is a big push to fast-track it.
OOXML is a complicated, 6000+ page specification, requiring a great deal of study and consideration before a sensible decision on it can be made. By upgrading at the last minute, it certainly appears that some of that review may have been skipped. If a country was interested in the process and wanted to have more input, it seems that they might have found time to do it in the nine months of review. If it is going to be an international standard, it should, at least, be a well scrutinized standard.
Predictably, Microsoft is proclaiming the voting result as a victory, of sorts, just a step along the way to ISO acceptance. In the Microsoft view, the no voters will reverse course "once their comments are resolved." Their confidence is palpable and, to opponents, galling. There is some indication that the pressure applied to national bodies resulted in a backlash, with at least one switching to a no vote because of it. It will certainly be interesting to see how some of the comments will be "resolved."
Microsoft has admitted that an employee offered "marketing assistance" to offset the $2500 entrance fee for Swedish companies to join their national voting committee. More than twenty showed up, just before the vote, to vote yes. Eventually, the vote was thrown out, not because of the blatant ballot-box stuffing, but because somehow one company voted twice. Sweden ended up abstaining, which was a win for OOXML, as it clearly would have been a no vote otherwise.
Microsoft has made various noises about the "inadequacies" of the Open Document Format (ODF) standard – ISO passed it with so few comments that a BRM was not required – and there is some truth buried deeply in the rhetoric. The proper response is not to propose another standard, but to improve the one that exists. ODF is implemented by multiple projects, with open source reference implementations. It is very unlikely that anyone, other than Microsoft, will be able to fully implement OOXML.
It's also not clear that anyone should want to implement OOXML as international standard. Besides being complex, the proposed standard contradicts other ISO standards. It also has the kind of bug-for-bug compatibility that is one of Microsoft's calling cards. An international standard should not have to implement a sloppy collection of bugs and compatibility hacks. It should be noted that OOXML contains some very important features – some not available in ODF – but that does not make it a good standard. It should not be adopted just to appease the world's largest software maker.
Microsoft is behaving like a company that is terrified of losing their near-monopoly in the office software market. If they, instead, embraced the standard – leaving behind extend and extinguish – and competed on the feature set of their office suite, their much touted "innovation" could shine. Unfortunately, for anyone with a historical perspective on Microsoft's tactics, this OOXML standardization move looks like the first act of some kind of customer lock-in scheme.
There will be close scrutiny on the participants between now and the vote in February. Hopefully, we will see no more gaming of the standards process, by anyone; the committee will judge the resolutions on their technical merit, coming to a sensible decision. From what we have seen so far, that seems unlikely, but one can hope.
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