Wyatt Kash | OOXML's flaws

Editor's Desk | Commentary: Office Open Extensible Markup Language fails to win international standards approval but needs to succeed for users' sake

Wyatt Kash

Microsoft's bid to establish a version of its Office software as an international standard suffered a seismic setback earlier this month when it failed to win enough votes for International Organization for Standardization approval.

The closely watched vote on the specifications of Office Open XML evoked the kind of attention and intrigue more typically associated with the selection of an Olympics host city. (See Rutrell Yasin's report and the Packet Rat's comments in GCN's Sept. 10 issue.)

Microsoft faced an uphill battle from the start. Critics, primarily from the open-source community, claimed OOXML introduces a competing standard to the OpenDocument Format standard ratified by ISO in May 2006 that would further Microsoft's market dominance. Both approaches open and process text, spreadsheet and graphical documents; OOXML seeks to unlock format properties built into Microsoft Office documents.

That OOXML's technical specifications required 6,000 pages for review in a fast-tracked, five-month voting process ' compared with ODF's 600 pages ' compounded the challenge.

OOXML won approval as a standard from the European Computer Manufacturers Association in December and earned support from the private and public sectors ' including the Defense and Homeland Defense departments ' but it presented too many technical ambiguities to win majority ISO approval.

Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has come out in favor of competing document standards, registered its concern about a number of technical shortcomings that Microsoft still needs to address.

Many key terms in the standard, for instance, are not yet defined or are incomplete, making concepts such as content type, source relationships, real-time data formula and other terms ambiguous. OOXML was also guilty of using a proprietary naming scheme, and it falls short of meeting the accessibility requirements in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

In the end, ISO's review process rightfully determined that OOXML is not yet ready to take on the mantle of an international standard.

But with more than 400 million Microsoft Office users producing billions of new Office documents each year, let's hope OOXML's sponsors succeed in addressing the thousands of comments and concerns in time for the next round of consideration in February 2008.

Wyatt Kash, Editor in chief

E-mail: wkash@1105govinfo.com

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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