Office Open XML Gains ECMA Approval; IBM Votes No

Citing major collaborative contributions from a dozen companies and institutions, including Novell, Apple, Intel, the British Library, and the US Library of Congress, the Ecma International standards body today approved what will now be called Ecma Open XML - formerly Microsoft's "Office Open XML" - as an international standard for document formatting.

Suddenly, the world's top three word processors -- Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, and OpenOffice -- will all have provisions to support two XML-based formats. OASIS' OpenDocument format (ODF) will be one of them, and the Ecma Open XML format proffered by Microsoft will be the other.

All the other applications in the Microsoft Office 2007 suite, including Excel, have adapted to the new format, with their Office 2003 counterparts as a fallback.

At this point, maintenance of the Ecma Open XML standard moves from Microsoft to Technical Committee 45 of Ecma International (no longer all-caps). While supporting vendors remain free to innovate their own functionality, changes to the standard itself must now be approved by TC45.

Also, the standard moves up the international chain, where like a Miss USA winner moving on to Miss Universe, it will be proposed on a fast-track process to the International Standards Organization, which certifies industry standards and practices on a much broader level - Ecma deals with computing and communications exclusively.

"Thanks to the depth of the technical resources the TC45 created, the Open XML standard covers the full set of features used in the existing corpus of billions of documents," reads an Ecma statement this afternoon. "Developers have the flexibility to decide whether they want to take advantage of subsets or the full feature set of the Office Open XML formats. In addition, the format enables organizations to integrate productivity applications with information systems that manage business processes by enabling the use of custom schemas within Open XML documents."

Ecma does not publish the votes of its members, nor the final tally, though with the list of supporters mentioned today, it's likely the majority in favor was sizable.

Among the most vocal opponents of adopting Microsoft's proposal was IBM, who in recent months has claimed the company is simply moving its existing functionality into whatever public arena best suits that company at the time -- in this case, open standards -- just as a means of keeping its own proprietary product suite front-and-center.

In a statement on his personal blog today, IBM vice president for open source Bob Sutor made a bold pronouncement: "We think the OpenDocument Format ISO standard is vastly superior to the Open XML spec. ODF is what the world needs today to drive competition, innovation, and lower costs for customers. It is an example of a real open standard versus a vendor-dictated spec that documents proprietary products via XML. ODF is about the future, Open XML is about the past. We voted for the future."

Sutor's claims run contrary to those of Ecma's Open XML white paper, offered to prospective supporters and the general public, well prior to today's vote.

"The interoperability of OpenXML has been accomplished through extensive contributions, modification, and review of the Specification by members of the Ecma TC45 committee with diverse backgrounds and corporate interests," the paper reads. "During preparation, committee members raised and resolved hundreds of issues regarding policy, clarity, semantics, and possible dependence on environment."

The paper goes on to list "specific areas in which OpenXML departs from the original binary formats for the sake of interoperability." Among them are the fact that embedded images may be of any type, embedded functionality is not dependent on any one programming language or runtime environment, and that embedded fonts utilize font metrics systems for determining the best available font on any user's system, when the specified font is not available.

In a blog posting written last October, IBM's Sutor argued that by Microsoft essentially leaving the choice of embedded functionality providers, to borrow a phrase, "open." Users of the format would be forced not to choose their own providers to fill in the blanks, but instead to choose whichever providers Microsoft appears to favor at the time, since theirs is the most prominent suite using Open XML.

"Since they [Microsoft] have avoided using industry standards like SVG [Scalable Vector Graphics] and MathML," Sutor writes, "you'll have to reimplement Microsoft's flavor of many things. You had better start now. So therefore I conclude that while Microsoft may end up supporting most of Open XML...other products will likely only end up supporting a subset.

"That means that other products and software, in practice, will NOT be able to understand arbitrary Open XML that might be thrown at them," he continues. "There is just too much. Therefore they will only create a bit that they need and send that off. Send it off to whom? The only software that might understand it, namely Microsoft Office."

Microsoft is preparing a comment in response to today's vote, and BetaNews will bring that to you once it's ready.

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