Retired Ecma chief expects Open XML's approval by March

Jan Van Den Beld says any standard's going to have errors

With ISO's Sept. 2 voting deadline looming, the recently retired secretary general of Ecma International defended Microsoft's Office Open XML document format against fierce technical criticism.

"Give me any standard, and I bet you I can find an error," said Jan Van Den Beld, who retired in April after 16 years running Geneva-based Ecma, in a telephone interview on Monday with Computerworld.

Ecma is shepherding Open XML, the default format used by Office 2007 documents, through ISO's traditionally difficult approval process.

The international standards group has set a Sept. 2 deadline for the 20 nations that are members of the ISO Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC-1) to vote on whether to approve Open XML.

Van Den Beld, who oversaw Ecma's approval of 229 technical standards, many of which were later approved by ISO, also predicts that Open XML will be approved next spring after a follow-up ISO meeting.

"Ultimately, I think it will get through," he said.

Friends and foes line up

That's no sure thing, however. The document format faces strong opposition from grass-roots advocates who want to see free productivity software such as that of OpenOffice.org gain a foothold, as well as from vendors such as IBM.

Opponents argue that Open XML is redundant in light of the technically similar Open Document Format for Office Applications (known as ODF) which is native to OpenOffice.org and was approved as a standard more than a year ago by ISO.

They also argue the Open XML proposal is too long (6,500-plus pages) to evaluate during this abbreviated fast-track process, that it's riddled with inconsistencies and technical errors, and that it covertly continues to effectively grant Microsoft control of the standard.

So far, organizations representing Brazil and China (original news report in Mandarin; translation available here) have said publicly that they plan to vote against Open XML. India is close to finalizing the same position.

On the other side, Germany, the U.S. and, according to Van Den Beld, Switzerland are all moving to vote in favor of Open XML.

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Eric Lai

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