U.S. approves Office Open XML standard, with some reservations

The U.S. voting representative on international information technology standards has voted for conditional approval of the Office Open XML standard, which would create a new standard for creating and viewing digital office documents.

The decision to vote 'approve, with comments' means that the concerns about OOXML expressed by members of the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards executive board will be considered in the final approval process by the International Standards Organization and International Electrotechnical Commission. INCITS is the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1, and casts this country's vote on IT standards.

The deadline for the five-month fast-track voting process by 104 countries on whether to adopt OOXML as an international standard was Sept. 2. ISO announced today that the standard did not receive enough votes for approval. A ballot resolution meeting to address concerns identified in this round of balloting is expected to be held by ISO/IEC in February.

OOXML is a schema using Extensible Markup Language to make word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations created with Microsoft products readable by other programs. An open standard for this is important because it would enable documents created on one platform to be represented and read accurately by users with different software, and also would ensure that documents would remain accessible over time as the original programs become obsolete.

This issue is especially critical for governments, which are required to make public records available without restriction to a single software platform, and to maintain them over time. A competing Open Document Format already has been approved as an international standard, but adoption has been hindered by the fact that it was not supported by Microsoft Office, a widely used suite of office applications. Adopting ODF would require many organizations to replace their existing applications, and Microsoft complained that adoption would in effect lock the company out of that market.

Microsoft responded with its own open format, OOXML, with the release of Office 2007 and ISO/IEC put it on the fast track for approval.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a member of INCITS, favors the competing document standards, according to NIST Director William Jeffrey.

'NIST believes that ODF and OOXML can co-exist as international standards,' Jeffrey said. 'NIST fully supports technology-neutral solutions and will support the standard once our technical concerns are addressed.'

Those technical concerns led NIST to support an INCITS vote of 'approve, with comments' in a second round of INCITS balloting. In the original ballot in August, NIST voted to 'disapprove, with comments' but there was no consensus for that vote among the 16 U.S. voting members of INCITS. If INCITS had not been able to reach a consensus on how to vote by the Sept. 2 deadline, it would not have been able to submit its concerns to ISO/IEC.

Those concerns include:
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  • The lack of some normative references, specifying specific versions of other standards being cited.
  • A stronger hash algorithm, such as SHA-256, should be required.
  • Some informative examples are invalid.
  • OOXML uses a proprietary naming scheme.
  • Some requirements do not fully support accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act.

Negotiations to resolve technical and other issues are a fact of life in the international standards-making process and do not necessarily represent a roadblock to adoption of OOXML.

'As was the case with ODF, the final approval of [OOXML] will be the result of negotiations on technical and other issues submitted by ISO/IEC national bodies during the present fast-track ballot,' Jeffrey said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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