Office Open XML format falls foul of ISO process

Efforts by Microsoft to get its Open Office XML (OOXML) file format fast tracked through the ISO standardisation process have hit trouble as several ISO members expressed concerns about the proposed standard.

Already approved by the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA), Microsoft had wanted to use the ISO's fast-track process for approving standards already ratified by other bodies to smooth the way. However, no fewer than 19 nations have now raised 'contradictions' to OOXML. This will add a further three months to the process and the possibility that it might not make it as an ISO standard at all.

The 19 countries had until yesterday to raise any contradictions, which refers to the possibility that existing standards would be broken by the ratification of the one under consideration.

Standards expert Andy Updegrove, of Gesmer Updegrove, described the number of contradictions as 'unprecedented'.

'This may not only be the largest number of countries that have ever submitted contradictions in the ISO/IEC process, but nineteen responses is greater than the total number of national bodies that often bother to vote on a proposed standard at all,' he wrote in his blog.

The 19 countries included the UK's British Standards Institute and the standards bodies of numerous other European countries, as well as those of Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.

Worse still, India objected to having just 30 days in which to digest the 6,000 plus page specification document in the first place. According to India's Economic Times, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) considered abstaining from the process altogether. Abstention, however, would have been read as agreement, and so India raised a contradiction.

Details of the contradictions have yet to be made public and, if minor, the OOXML standard could still proceed. Because of the sheer number of contradictions, the ECMA body will have 30 days to prepare responses to them before they are made public.

Microsoft told us in a statement: 'There is no strict guidance from ISO/IEC as to what a contradiction is and it is not up to anyone but ISO/IEC to address the submissions. The process that governs the ISO/IEC process is designed to give all member countries an opportunity to comment, and then for ISO/IEC to make a determination as to when it is appropriate to move to the five month balloting process.

'Of the 100+ countries involved in this process only a handful have made submissions and we suspect that many of those are statements of support or no contradiction.

'ISO/IEC has now closed its contradiction comments period as of February 5th, and now has up to three months to decide whether to start the five month technical review process and ballot. This five month, technical review period is an opportunity to raise and address member state questions and comments regarding the standard prior to final approval vote.'

At stake is not simply ratification of OOXML as an ISO standard, but a slew of government contracts where the assurance that state documents are not beholden to a single vendor or proprietary commercial software is becoming increasingly important.

Microsoft's rival in this is the Open Document Format which has already been accepted as an OASIS standard and campaigners are urging US state departments to make ODF a prerequisite for public sector documents.

Interoperability between the formats is also being worked on, with a recently announced translator to allow ODF docs to be opened and saved in Microsoft's Office. Sun today has also announced it is working on a translator for its StarOffice suite which also works with OpenOffice. This should be available in preview form in the middle of February.