Calif. Document Format Bill Could Test Microsoft's Openness Claim

A bill introduced last week in the California state legislature would make it state law next year for all state agencies to create, preserve, and archive their digital documents using an XML-based file format, and to be able to receive new documents in XML-based formats as well. The bill does not mention any format specifically, though observers believe it refers indirectly to OpenDocument Format (ODF).

However, with Corel having promised last November to implement Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) in its next edition of WordPerfect Office, and with an announcement on that edition believed to be imminent, there may be no barriers left that would specifically exclude OOXML from being adopted by the State of California, should bill AB 1668 pass.

The bill would indeed stipulate that state workers must create documents using the XML-based format, not just archive them. So Microsoft Office 2003 and older versions would have to be replaced on or before January 1, 2008; and conceivably, existing documents might need to be translated on or before that time - a process which for other states generally takes far longer than twelve months.

In listing the criteria the State would have to apply in choosing an XML-based format, the bill prescribes that format must be interoperable, fully published, royalty-free, sponsored by an open industry organization, and implemented by multiple vendors. Up until now, OOXML has been all of these things except the latter.

But even after OOXML becomes one of the optional formats for WordPerfect Office users (ODF is another), there could still be if not a roadblock, then at least a stumbling block, for OOXML ahead: While ECMA International has already approved OOXML as an open standard, and is working to acquire fast-track status for its ultimate approval by the International Standards Organization, which would limit time for debate over its adoption to five months.

Last month, however, the ISO acknowledged it had received objections to fast-track status for OOXML by 19 member countries. Microsoft's and ECMA's deadline for responding to those objections passed yesterday.

Among the comments from individuals and organizations that ISO has thus far received include several that state adoption of Office Open XML would violate ISO rules, claiming it was developed by a single company. However, ECMA lists 11 other companies besides Microsoft as having contributed to the standard, including Apple, Intel, Novell, Toshiba, the British Library, and the Library of Congress.

Regardless of how the ISO chooses to handle those objections, the Open Forum Europe industry group is on record as objecting to the process by which Microsoft and ECMA were given time to respond in the first place, citing a lack of transparency. "We believe that bearing in mind the number and extent of the concerns raised worldwide, this date is unrealistic," reads an entry on the Alliance's Web site posted last month. "What process do ISO intend to follow which facilitates this evaluation and allow transparency of the debate?"

Without fast-track status, member nations could debate the worthiness of OOXML for the next few years, after which time, the next version of Microsoft Office might ironically be imminent. If the debate lasts beyond California's 1/1/2008 deadline - assuming the bill passes - then the Legislature might find itself arguing over whether ECMA is a large enough organization to qualify as "an open industry organization with a well-defined inclusive process for evolution of the standard."

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