With Controversial Vote, Open XML Hangs in the Balance

Microsoft on Wednesday will discover whether it has managed to convince the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to accept its XML-based Office document format, Open XML, as an international standard. The voting actually concluded over the weekend, but the ISO announced Monday that it would need a few days to alert its worldwide members of the results of the vote first. My understanding is that that has little to do with the delay, as you'll soon see.

Much hangs in the balance for Microsoft, which had ushered Open XML through a less-stringent standards process at the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), without much trouble. ISO standardization is, by definition, more difficult, but Microsoft has had a particularly tough time with Open XML, thanks to strong resistance from the open-source community and Microsoft's competitors, some of whom back the competing Open Document Format (ODF), instead.

Microsoft's initial attempt to fast track Open XML through the ISO standardization process can best be described as controversial, with plenty of political in-fighting and accusations of unscrupulous behavior from both sides. And as I write this, the controversies continue: There are reported voting "irregularities" in Croatia and Germany, and the Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry has filed a formal protest over the vote, arguing that its "yes" vote should be changed to "no," given that 80 percent of the Norwegian committee was against standardizing Open XML. These issues, I feel, are the real reason ISO hasn't yet announced the results of its voting.

Indeed, it now seems like the vote will be largely settled on a technicality, the technology industry equivalent of the 2000 presidential election in the United States. (Legal watchdogs at Groklaw described it as "approval by irregularities.") Microsoft issued a statement about the process Monday in which it described the standardization process as "remarkable, involving literally thousands of technical experts, technology consumers, and governments in 87 countries." Out of respect for the standards process, the company won't comment further until the final results are revealed.

OK, so that's this week's soap opera. But the standardization of Open XML is hugely important to Microsoft, as this is the new arena in which Microsoft is seeking to continue and extend the dominance of one of its three core products, Office. Previously, the company closely guarded the makeup of the formats used to create Office documents, believing that customer reliance on this data would drive sales of its products to the detriment of the competition. But with so many governments around the world wanting to maintain consumer and state data in open document formats, Microsoft has been forced to open up its Office document formats, shining a light for the first time on the secret sauce that was, for so long, one of the company's crown jewels.

They may have moved too slowly. ODF was accepted as an international standard back in 2006, and competing office productivity suites such as the OpenOffice.org/StarOffice tandem immediately adopted the format. Like Open XML, ODF documents are based on XML and can use a ZIP archive container. And although there are add-ons for Office that help it work with ODF rather than Microsoft's formats, Open XML is the default and offers a more seamless experience. I'm curious to see what happens Wednesday, but I'm particularly curious what will happen if Microsoft loses the vote.

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