Now an official ISO standard, Microsoft's OOXML invites controversy

Although ISO approval was not entirely unanimous, the Microsoft-originated Open Office XML (OOXML) protocol has finally become an international standard as of April 2.

Still, though, with OOXML foes accusing Microsoft of playing politics -- and OOXML fans accusing IBM of doing likewise -- the European Commission (EC) continues to investigate whether Microsoft might have used market dominance to unfair advantage in clearing passage for the controversial document protocol.

OOXML is a format for word processing documents, presentations and spreadsheets which competes against the OpenDocument standard favored by many open source advocates.

Microsoft first achieved standardization of OOXML through the European-based ECMA industry association. But in the subsequent ISO standardization process, the Microsoft-spearheaded format was initially disapproved in a "fast-track vote" that ended last September, receiving over 3,500 comments.

A second ISO vote took place during the final week of February, 2008. Before then, "by eliminating redundancies, the comments had been reduced to just over 1,000 individual issues to be considered. Issues considered as priorities by national members (such as accessibility, date formats, conformance issues) were discussed, and the other comments were addressed through a voting process on the remaining items, a system agreed upon by [the] participants," according to a written statement from the ISO.

In the second ISO vote, 75 percent of nations belonging to the ISO/IEC joint technical committee said "yes" to standardization, where only 14 percent said "no."

Approval required two-thirds of the votes cast to be positive, while only one-quarter of them could be negative. After the vote, though, nations were given until March 29 to reconsider. Because none of the countries did change their votes by then, the ISO declared OOXML to be an official standard on April 2.

Meanwhile, however, the Wall Street Journal reported in February that the EU had launched an investigation to find out whether might have abused its market dominance in obtaining standardization of the protocol.

Then, CNET today reported receiving confirmation from an European Commission spokesperson that the investigation is still ongoing. The EC's investigation was reportedly spurred by a complaint from an anti-Microsoft lobbying group known as the European Commission for Interoperable Systems (ECIS).

Industry reaction outside of the EC has been predictably polarized. In one recent blog entry, for example, Reuven Lerner argued that OOXML fails as a standard on three counts: technical "correctness," ease of implementation, and intellectual property (IP).

"Another consideration has to do with intellectual property: Even if it's technically possible for everyone to implement a particular standard, it should be legally possible, as well. That is, implementation of the standard should not require the licensing of technologies from anyone else, particularly another member of the committee," according to Lerner.

Lerner also criticized Microsoft for "old-fashioned politics."

"If anyone in the open-source community were to propose a huge, unimplementable standard, they would have been laughed out of town. So this raises at least two questions: How did this happen, and what do we do about it?" he asked rhetorically.

"This happened, from everything I can tell, through old-fashioned politics: Microsoft, from numerous reports I've read, managed to get a number of countries to vote in favor of adopting OOXML. For example, Norway's ISO representative voted to approve OOXML, despite the vocal objection of the Norwegian standards committe. Politics are a normal part of the standardization landscape, but this seems to have been an extreme case, by everyone's measure."

For his part, however, Jason Matusow, Microsoft's shared source manager, points to lobbying taking place in the opposite direction from a continent he refers to as "IBM, et al."

"It is completely legitimate for companies who are Microsoft partners (or who have an independent interest in using the specification) using Open XML in order to deliver functionality to their customers to participate in the standards process. They choose to invest engineering and business resources in support of Open XML as a means of supporting their own business interests. This is just as true for a business partner of [IBM's] (or [someone who has] an independent interest in document formats) who joined Big Blue in the work against Open XML because they felt it was in their best interest to do so. Standards work is meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive," Matusow's wrote in his blog.

"IBM/et al worked very hard to oppose the Open XML standard. They committed millions of dollars to the effort, lobbied hard, worked with their partners, but did not get the outcome they were hoping for," he contended.

"In some countries, IBM was responsible for more than 90% of the submitted comments, and everywhere they added essentially the same comments to their work in national bodies. They got their wish -- their comments, indeed, 87%+ of all comments, were resolved in the disposition process and the national standards bodies felt that the process had been successful," according to the Microsoft executive.

"[But] we now see IBM/et al driving an orchestrated process attack in the hopes of overturning the ratification of Open XML, or at least to discredit what has come out of this long, global process."

Bob Sutor, vice president for Open Source and Standards at IBM and vocal opponent of Open XML, fired back in a blog post, calling into question the International standards process and outlining issues that he feels led to OOXML being approved unjustly.

"So is that it? Of course not. The process of international standards making has been laid bare for all to examine...While fully cognizant of these current results, I'm energized to take the bigger fight for openness to the next level with the thousands of individuals who are now convinced that the standards system needs fixing, and soon," Sutor wrote. "I hope you'll take part."

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