Microsoft Defends Open XML Work

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Rather than stacking the vote, Microsoft simply wanted to allow interested organizations to participate in the Open XML standardization process, unlike other rival efforts, a company executive said Wednesday.

Critics and supporters of the competing ODF (Open Document Format) have accused Microsoft of stacking votes, particularly a preliminary vote late last year in the International Organization for Standardization regarding standardization of the Open XML format.

"We have a very different perspective" on how that process occurred, said Tom Robertson, general manager of Microsoft's corporate interoperability and standards group, speaking to a group of journalists from around the world in Kirkland, Washington.

"There was an increase in participation both from ODF proponents trying to stop this and people who wanted to see it to promote choice," he said. That meant that more than the "old guard" -- such as companies like IBM that typically participate in such processes -- became involved, he said.

Open-Door Process?

Microsoft wanted to involve anyone who has a stake in interoperability, including governments, technology companies, academics and enterprises, he said. "This cannot be a closed-door process," he said. "Should those who are impacted by this decision have a seat at the table? Absolutely. Should it be restricted to Open XML advocates? No, it shouldn't be."

Microsoft also defended its choice of Ecma to initially standardize the technology, rather than another standards body. "It is one of the leaders in standardization in the IT space for decades," Robertson said.

All but one member -- IBM -- of the Ecma general assembly voted to adopt the standard. The general assembly also voted to pass it on to ISO, a worldwide standardization body, for ratification.

Despite that progress, critics wonder why Microsoft built the technology in the first place when there was already an existing open file format, ODF.

"It starts with our customers," Robertson said. "Many say that ODF doesn't meet their needs."

As an example, the ODF group initially decided not to support spreadsheet formulas, said Gray Knowlton, group product manager for Microsoft Office. "When we look at customers of Excel, we can't give them a standard that doesn't recognize spreadsheet formulas," he said. However, he also noted that ODF later reversed that decision to support spreadsheet formulas.

Microsoft is hopeful that Open XML will pass an upcoming ISO vote, but if it doesn't, it won't be the end of Open XML, the executives said. "It's already an open standard and already available to the community," said Robertson. "The issue here in the ratification is: Does the global community want a voice in the evolution of Open XML going forward."

Also, if individual governments mandate the use of ODF instead of Open XML, Microsoft would adapt, Knowlton said. The company would then implement the missing functionality that ODF doesn't support. However, those extensions would be custom-designed and outside of the standard, which is counter to the idea of an open document standard, Knowlton said. "Disastrous? No. But definitely not preferable," he said.

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