Weak support for OOXML changes throws shadow over approval

Critics say little discussion on the technical tweaks took place

A committee of ISO members in Geneva may have approved the proposed changes to Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML), but the document format's final approval remains far from certain.

Critics charge that the discussion around the 1,100 mostly-esoteric technical tweaks -- delivered in mid-January via a 2,300-page document by standards body Ecma International -- was so perfunctory that no consensus can be drawn from it.

"Eighty per cent of the changes were not discussed," said Frank Farance, head of the US delegation to this week's ballot resolution meeting (BRM) in ISO, which voted against the changes. "It's like if you had a massive software project and 80 per cent of it was not run through QA.

"It's a big problem," Farance continued. "I've never seen anything like this, and I've been doing this for 25 years.

Besides the 200 or so changes that were discussed and approved by committee members, another 900 were grouped together for a single vote without any discussion, due to lack of time.

Of the 32 participating countries, only six, including the Czech Republic and Poland, voted to approve those 900 changes. Eighteen countries, or more than half, abstained, while another 4 countries refused to register a vote, according to the blog of Andy Updegrove , a lawyer and open standards activist.

Four countries, including the United States and Malaysia, according to Farance, voted not to approve those 900 changes.

That, critics say, indicates a lack of actual support for Open XML.

"People here are disgusted," Updegrove said by phone from Geneva, where he observed the week's proceedings. "The absurdity of trying to do this by a 'fast track' process became quite apparent this week."

Microsoft, however, said that Open XML has faced far greater scrutiny than other ISO formats, including the rival OpenDocument Format, which quickly passed in a fast-track process in 2006. Expecting that every change needed individual approval at this week's meeting would only add to an already bureaucratic process, the company argued.

"I think the process has worked," said Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, in a phone interview from Geneva. "There has been a lot of discussion since this process was started on September 2. Not every issue that was raised needed to be discussed face-to-face this week.

"The national bodies this week simply identified the issues that mattered most to them, and focused their discussion on them," Robertson continued. "I think it's fair to say there was a pretty rigorous review of those issues."

Robertson declined to comment on Open XML's prospects for final adoption by ISO.

For that to happen, Open XML must gain the support of three quarters of all ISO members that vote and two-thirds of the national standards bodies that work on a specific proposal. At the last ISO vote in September, Open XML failed on both counts, getting "yes" votes from 74 per cent of the former group and 53 per cent of the so-called participating members.

Microsoft hopes that enough countries will change their minds in the next 30 days as a result of the BRM result.

That could easily happen. The US position has flip-flopped several times during the fast-track process that began in early 2007.

Farance confirmed that the disapproval of the 6-member US delegation to the BRM, which actually included employees from both IBM and Microsoft, "doesn't necessarily correspond" with how the US will vote in the final tally of national bodies.

Despite accusations that both Microsoft and IBM have been engaged in heavy-handed attempts at influence for and against OOXML's passage, Farance said he didn't observe any shenanigans this week.

"People were doing the usual amount of lobbying," he said. "Was anybody doing anything egregious or out of process? No."

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Eric Lai

Computerworld
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