It looks as if Microsoft‘s OOXML office document file format will be published as an open standard after all. The International Standards Organization (ISO) today rejected four appeals from subsidiary national standards bodies that claimed ballot irregularities during the standardization process. Had these appeals been upheld, an OOXML standard could have been delayed indefinitely, despite Microsoft’s best efforts to fast-track the process.
Barring any further hold-ups, ISO is expected to publish the full text of the standard within the next few weeks. But as the dust clears, many IT managers and office software users will likely be left scratching their heads: What does an open standard office file format from Microsoft actually get us?
A competing set of file formats, called ODF (Open Document Format), was accepted as an ISO standard more than two years ago. ODF is already in use in a number of competing office software products, including OpenOffice.org, AbiWord, and IBM’s Lotus Symphony. Its success in the face of Microsoft’s protracted effort to produce its own standard even recently prompted Microsoft employee Stuart McKee to remark, “ODF has clearly won [the standards battle].”
Indeed, Microsoft’s failure to participate in the ODF standardization process has caused some to interpret the software giant’s efforts to pursue its own, competing standard as little more than an attempt to undermine ODF. For its part, Microsoft has recently stated that it will include ODF support in a future update of Office 2007 — but, interestingly, it will not actually include support for the ISO standardized versions of its own file formats until some future release of the suite.
According to Andy Updegrove of technology law firm Gesmer Updegrove, the rejection of the appeals against OOXML standardization is business as usual for the ISO process. “Today’s announcement is not unexpected.  It will be significant to learn, however, what the actual votes may have been,” he says.
If there were many votes cast in support of the appeals, it may be evidence that ISO’s processes may be skewed in favor of the interests of large corporations, such as Microsoft, rather than those of its member countries. “The greater the support, the more urgent it will be for ISO and IEC to reform their processes in order to remain credible and relevant to the IT marketplace,” Updegrove says.
Just how much impact an ISO-approved OOXML will actually have on the IT marketplace — or on users of office software — remains to be seen. On the plus side, an approved standard should make it easier for competitors, including open source software projects, to interoperate with Microsoft Office, which has been difficult in the past. On the minus side, the proliferation of overlapping standards could serve to further muddy the marketplace, making bewildered customers much more likely to stick to the status quo.
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