Critics: Microsoft gaming ISO system in Open XML vote bid

Normally low-key tech committee suddenly focus of high drama

Countries normally passive in the arcane world of international high-tech standards are suddenly jockeying to have their say in the fate of Microsoft's Office Open XML document format, swelling membership in a key but normally obscure technical committee.

The number of nations that are full voting members of the ISO's Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC-1) is now 41, up from 30 when Open XML was first put onto the international standards organization's fast-track approval process six months ago.

Countries that have recently upgraded their status on JTC-1 to Participant or 'P' status include Malta, Cote d'Ivoire, Cyprus, Ecuador, Jamaica, Lebanon, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Those countries are all allowed to vote on the approval of Open XML as an ISO open standard, confirmed Lisa Rajchel, the U.S. secretary for the JTC-1 committee, in an e-mail.

Opponents of Open XML claim that the sudden rise is no coincidence and is linked to aggressive local politicking by Microsoft that takes advantage of loopholes in the rules.

"I have to say that this is the most egregious, and far-reaching, example of playing the system to the advantage of a single company that I have ever seen. Breathtaking, in fact," wrote Andy Updegrove, a Boston lawyer and open standards activist, in a blog post late last week. "That's assuming, of course, that I am right in supposing that all of these newbie countries vote 'yes.'"

Preliminary votes were officially due on Sunday, Sept. 2. According to Stacy Leistner, director of communications at the American National Standards Institute, which is helping the ISO oversee IT standards, the results will be released on Tuesday or Wednesday.

A number of countries have already indicated which position they plan to take.

Those in favor of ratifying Open XML include the U.S., Germany, Poland and Switzerland.

But more countries appear to be coming out against Open XML. They include Brazil, China (original news report in Mandarin; translation available), Norway, Denmark, France, New Zealand and Korea.

Representatives for the Australian delegation said it would abstain.

Sweden, which planned to vote for Open XML, also said it would likely abstain after discovering internal voting irregularities. That happened after it was discovered that a local Microsoft employee had sent an e-mail that appeared to promise compensation to business partners who joined Sweden's high-tech standards group and voted for Open XML's approval.

This week's vote is not the end of the process. It will continue until next spring, when another JTC-1 meeting in Geneva will take place. "Comments" -- official criticism of Open XML and recommendations for change -- will be addressed by a JTC-1 subcommittee. After that will be a revote, during which no more than one-third of JTC-1's now 41 members (that is, 13) can vote against Open XML's approval.

But Updegrove claimed that the Document Descriptions and Processing Languages Subcommittee has also seen its membership double to 48 countries since April, when the ISO began considering Open XML. He wrote that was another example of Microsoft attempting to pack relevant decision-making bodies with its supporters.

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Eric Lai

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