Microsoft's OOXML Win: Just the First Step to Adoption

The International Organization for Standardization's approval of Microsoft's OOXML as an international standard is just the beginning of what could be a lengthy process before the file format can be widely and successfully implemented for exchanging documents, according to critics and supporters of OOXML.

For some, who have criticized Microsoft's now-successful attempt to fast-track Office Open XML as an ISO standard from the start, it seemed appropriate that the company confirmed OOXML's ratification on April Fools' Day.

But to others -- including Microsoft -- the approval of OOXML was a win for giving software developers and business users, particularly those in government agencies, choice about which standard file format they want to use for exchanging electronic documents.

Though official results about the vote from the ISO were announced today, Microsoft and a number of other sources confirmed Tuesday that 86 percent of the countries voting on OOXML had said "yes."

Validation and Controversy

To Tom Robertson, general manager of Microsoft interoperability and standards, this proves that "the global community has now embraced Open XML." He said the approval means that OOXML "will be widely used for years to come in every country in the world" as a standard for document exchange.

To some others, however, including open-standards advocates and supporters of Open Document Format for XML (ODF), a rival document format that preceded OOXML to ISO approval, the global community is still not ready to envelop OOXML in a warm and fuzzy hug. The final vote had barely been tallied before there were reports of irregularities and the possibility of national bodies changing "yes" votes due to protests from committee members unhappy with the outcome.

Protests over the ISO voting process and outcomes are not uncommon, said Jan van den Beld, ISO-process consultant for CompTIA and former secretary general of Ecma, who encouraged Microsoft to fast-track OOXML through Ecma to the ISO. This is particularly true because the ISO does not oversee each country's individual standards body and lets the national standards agencies set their own rules for voting on standards. "There's no general set of rules that each country is using," he said.

Still, even by standards voting, the OOXML vote has been particularly contentious, with both sides slinging mud for the better part of two years over first the Ecma, and then the ISO processes.

For example, not even two days after the final voting ended over the weekend, members of the Norwegian committee, which officially changed a previous "no, with comments" vote to "yes," asked that country's Ministry of Trade and Industry to investigate the voting process, claiming that 80 percent of committee members were opposed to a "yes" vote. For the record, the Norwegian standards body Standard Norge defended its vote online Tuesday, a defense Microsoft translated to English and posted at an employee blog.

Next: Implementation

No matter which side you're on or whom you believe, OOXML is now on par with ODF as an international standard. The practical question for business, government and consumer users of Office and other productivity suites remains: What comes next, and how will they be affected?

Proper implementation of the standard in Office 2007 seems to be a likely next step. Office 2007 is the suite that sparked the war when Microsoft decided to create its own XML-based document format for it and not include the existing ODF technology as a native file format.

Robertson said now that the format has been ratified, Microsoft will begin working on a road map for implementation, although he could not say when that would happen. That's probably because the ISO, which will oversee the standard going forward, still has work to do before the first OOXML specification will be finalized, which most expect will happen sometime before the end of the year.

Some, both privately and publicly, said the standards group will have its work cut out because the spec as it is now cannot legitimately be implemented, and there will need to be serious revision -- a thorough "scrubbing," as one critic put it -- before that can happen broadly.

"No one can actually implement this standard. Not even Microsoft," said Pamela Jones, author of the popular Groklaw blog and an outspoken critic of the OOXML process. "But even if they did, only Microsoft can really do so, because the format references proprietary stuff from the past. Stuff that is patented, no doubt, but mainly just unknown and unknowable, at least at the level Microsoft knows it."

Robertson said that the work being done in the ISO to finalize OOXML should rectify any problems of complexity, and the spec as it is now is far less complex than it was upon submission.

Moreover, CompTIA's van den Beld said it's "not true" that the OOXML spec can't be implemented, because companies such as IBM and others already have done so.

However, IBM said that it has not actually implemented OOXML, but its productivity applications merely "recognize" OOXML as a file format.

"It's kind of like when you encounter a "read-only" file on your computer, where it knows enough to give you a sense of what the file is and its characteristics," said IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind. "But it won't allow you to actually work with the file. So, it's misleading to suggest that a vendor has adopted, embraced or implemented that particular file format."

Issues Remain

All of this quibbling proves there are still issues to resolve over how OOXML will be implemented in real-world scenarios.

It also does not solve the problem Office 2007 users still have: while files that are written in previous versions of Office can be opened as OOXML .docx files in Office 2007, files saved to the .docx file format can't be read by people using older versions of Office unless they have installed an OOXML converter.

While one is available online from Microsoft -- and according to Robertson, is one of the company's most popular downloads-- it's still an extra step users have to go through to read .docx documents, so many still choose to save Office 2007 documents in the old .doc file format, or Word 97-2003, instead of OOXML as it's been implemented in Office 2007.

Another issue at hand is whether Microsoft will ever include native support for ODF in Office 2007 now that the company expects the world to adopt OOXML as a file format. To date, the company has no plans to do so, and is encouraging people to use the OOXML converter for using ODF files in Office.

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