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Microsoft's Office Open XML Spec Deep-Sixed -- For Now

It's official. The Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML) file format won't earn recognition from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as a formally recognized international file format standard.

In the Byzantine process of ISO approval, Microsoft needed to win a two-thirds majority among ISO P-members (national standards bodies that participated in forming the proposal), as well as a three-quarters majority among all voting members.

OOXML failed to earn a passing grade by either metric, though it was close. According to a Microsoft statement, 51 ISO members -- or 74 percent, just shy of the required majority -- supported ratification. That leaves the OpenDocument Format (ODF) all alone as an ISO-ratified standard for file formats.

Microsoft, oddly, sounds positively giddy about the losing result.

"This preliminary vote is a milestone for the widespread adoption of the Open XML formats around the world for the benefit of millions of customers. Given how encouraging today's results were, we believe that the final tally in early 2008 will result in the ratification of Open XML as an ISO standard," said Tom Robertson, general manager for Interoperability and Standards at Microsoft Corp, in a statement.

That's right: Every good bit of theater these days inspires a sequel, and the taut OOXML vote is no exception. Many "no" votes and abstentions included comments that provide technical guidance as to what Microsoft must do to sway votes. And that means OOXML could get another run at ratification early in 2008.

Speaking of theater, the IT industry got an eyeful when Microsoft admitted that one of its Swedish employees had offered monetary compensation to Microsoft partners in Sweden if they engaged in the proposal process and voted for the OOXML spec. Sweden invalidated its "yes" vote for OOXML and essentially abstained from the final voting.

No surprise, broader accusations of ballot stuffing -- by way of getting dozens of companies to suddenly join the ISO voting bodies of individual nations -- abound.

I asked Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of the C++ programming language and a guy who has wended his way through the ISO ratification maze a few times himself, if he's ever seen this kind of chicanery in previous ISO votes.

"I have never heard of money changing hands in exchange for votes or anything equivalent," Stroustrup writes back. "I guess every process is vulnerable to political and economic pressures, but I have not personally seen or suspected anything like that in relation to C++."

Despite the acrimony and accusations surrounding the OOXML ratification push, Stroustrup thinks in this case the process may have done what it was designed to do: Put the brakes on fast-moving technologies.

"The elaborate ISO process and its emphasis on consensus ensures a more conservative approach to standardization. Whether that is good or bad depends on your views on how fast technology should move, what risks you consider acceptable and how important compatibility is to you," writes Stroustrup.

Over at the ODF Alliance, meanwhile, Managing Director Marino Marcich is upbeat. In a statement, he says:

"ODF remains the document format of choice for governments, as it is now being considered for use by countries in every major region of the globe. Microsoft has every right to seek the ISO label for OOXML, but, as the ballot results show, it has a long way to go before it earns it and can be considered a truly open, interoperable document format."

I give it six months.

As developers, what do you think of the ongoing OOXML standards push? Is your dev shop looking at OOXML, ODF or both going forward? E-mail me at

Posted by Michael Desmond on 09/05/2007 at 1:15 PM

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