Microsoft and rivals jostle over open doc standard

Will fast-tracked document standard lead to inadequate debate?

European businesses are being urged to fight against the imposition of a Microsoft-led standard that, it is claimed, will cripple competition and lead to increased costs for business.

A campaign led by open-source body Open Forum Europe and the ODF Alliance is urging businesses to fight against the fast-tracking of the Office Open XML specification, Microsoft's open document format. In December, ECMA approved Office Open XML as a standard, a precursor to ratification by ISO.

However, the ODF Alliance is proposing a rival standard, Open Document Format, and talk of promoting competition rings a little hollow when the campaign effectively promotes the commercial interests of Microsoft's competitors.

Open Forum Europe doesn't see it quite that way: "I believe that it's best that there's just one open document standard: we support competition but that should come from the application, not from the standard," said Graham Taylor, director Open Forum Alliance.

Taylor's main concern is that ECMA's attempts to fast-track the process means that there will be an inadequate debate on the subject. "The Office Open XML specification is about 6,000 pages long compare with the Open Document Format's 300 pages. It's not possible to thoroughly assess a document of that size within 30 days," he said.

ECMA takes a different view. "Competing standards are quite normal in ISO and IEC, because there are also quite a few competing technologies," said Jan van den Beld, secretary general of Ecma International. "Think of LANs, programming languages and optical disks. There are also several formats in the world, all seeking to become (document) standards now. The first one is ODF. Then we have PDF and OOXML. And the Chinese have another one, not (yet) offered for standardization. The different standards reflect a reality in the world, it is too late to resolve everything by one standard."

Van den Beld also said that the fast-tracking process that the two industry bodies object to is normal procedure: "The Fast-Track procedure is very often used by Ecma International." Furthermore, he added, "about 80 percent of all 300-plus Fast-Track proposals that have been submitted under this procedure to ISO/IEC since 1987 have come from ECMA International and only two ECMA standards have failed to pass."

There are other issues: it's not just the fast-tracking that Taylor objects to -- he said that there were many questions as to whether Open Office XML was a true open standard. "There are many concerns as to what sort of licence that Microsoft would use," he said.

The fight for an open document standard has been an intense one. There was a widespread belief that Open Document, which has been supported by much of the open-source movement, would be the accepted standard but Microsoft has persisted in the push of Office Open XML and in getting the spec accepted as a standard by ECMA, has stolen a march on its rival.

Writing last December, the Gartner Group's Michael Silver and Rita Knox said : "In this latest battle in the format war, Microsoft gained ground on ODF but warned that users should not expect a victor in the format war to emerge before 2008."

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