Open XML voted down but not out

Standard falls short of certification, as some cite need for further review<@VM>SIDEBAR | Technical concerns

'NIST believes that ODF and OOXML can coexist as international standards.' ' William Jeffrey, NIST

AP photo by Charles Dharapak

Microsoft's Office Open XML failed to get enough votes early this month for approval as an international standard. However, if Microsoft addresses technical concerns raised by members of the International Organization for Standardization, the specification could still join the OpenDocument Format next year as a certified ISO specification for creating and viewing electronic documents.

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 last week 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 and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in February.

The group that cast the U.S. ballot, the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards Executive Board (INCITS EB), voted 'approve, with comments.' This vote means that the concerns about OOXML expressed by members of INCITS will be considered in the final approval process by ISO/IEC. INCITS is the U.S. technical advisory group for ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1, and it casts the country's vote on IT standards.

The Defense and Homeland Security departments, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and industry representatives such as Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are among the 16 organizations on the INCITS executive board.

OOXML uses Extensible Markup Language to make word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations created with Microsoft products readable by other programs. Another objective of open standards is to ensure the long-term preservation of documents created during the past two decades using programs that are becoming incompatible with advances in information technology formats.
Some say OOXML duplicates OpenDocument Format, which was ratified as an ISO standard in May 2006. ODF is supported by industry heavyweights such as IBM and Oracle.

The two companies were among three INCITS members who voted against the approval of OOXML.

In voting against OOXML, IBM officials said the fast-track process had not 'allowed for a sufficient technical review of this unprecedented 6,000-plus page specification.'

Wouldn't it be nice?

'At the moment, the ODF and OOXML have two different scopes,' said Mike Hogan, an electrical engineer at NIST who is involved in the standards process.
ODF, which had its origins with Sun Microsystems' Open Office program, is more generic, and OOXML focuses on opening Microsoft documents, he said.

'I think they are competitive. People have said, 'Wouldn't it be nice to merge them?' ' Hogan said. 'But that is not going to happen in the first go-round. Maybe when the dust settles on the planet, there will be one standard showing how to open and close documents. Maybe not.'

NIST favors competing document standards, NIST Director William Jeffrey said.
'NIST believes that ODF and OOXML can coexist as international standards,' Jeffrey said. 'NIST fully supports technology-neutral solutions and will support the standard once our technical concerns are addressed.'

However, Marino Marcich, managing director at the ODF Alliance, a consortium of organizations supporting that standard, said both specifications purport to do the same thing: map XML software to older binary formats to facilitate the opening and processing of documents created by word processors, presentation software and spreadsheets.

'There's room for standards for two different purposes, but we don't need competing standards. We need competing products,' Marcich said.
The fact that OOXML did not garner the two-thirds vote needed to be ratified 'demonstrates the depth of concern around the world over OOXML's interoperability and openness,' he said.

'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,' according to an ODF Alliance statement.
'Microsoft is very committed to interoperability and openness,' said Stuart McKee, U.S. technology officer at Microsoft. 'Microsoft made a commitment to XML many years ago in Office. Open XML is written to unlock the rich feature set of Microsoft Office.'

Ecma International has approved it as a standard and submitted it to ISO, he said. In addition, companies such as Apple and government agencies such as DOD and DHS have given OOXML their stamp of approval, McKee said.

ODF was submitted to ISO for a fast-track ballot by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards and approved in May, he said, but it didn't undergo the same scrutiny as OOXML.

But Marcich pointed out that ODF was a 600-page document, and OOXML is 6,000 pages. ODF remains the document format of choice for governments: It is now being considered for use by countries worldwide, he said.

He said Microsoft should let products such as Office 2007 compete on features and price instead of pushing an alternative document scheme.

However, OOXML might already be on its way to becoming a de facto standard. An IDC survey of 200 organizations in the United States and Europe found the use of XML-based document standards increasing.

'The use of XML-based standards seems stronger in Europe than in the U.S., but in both geographies, the dominant XML standard deployed is Office XML,' states the IDC report 'Adoption of Document Standards.' ODF 'is receiving some attention in the public sector but is not as widely used as Office Open XML, even here.'

For instance, Massachusetts' IT office ' which had drawn complaints from Microsoft when first proposing to use ODF ' approved OOXML last month as a standard for office documents (

The report also notes that although IT managers prefer to manage one standard, business managers generally see the need for multiple standards. They see OOXML as one of several standards deployed in an organization.

Hogan said NIST is seeing something similar to this in U.S. government agencies. 'We have CIOs in the government say we might be buying products that purport to be able to open documents using either standard. So we're likely to buy [products] that can handle both standards.'

The first edition of OOXML is in play, he said. 'There are a lot of changes being requested, let's see how many they can agree on' at the meeting in February. Aside from the fast-track ballot receiving a lot of publicity, there's nothing new in OOXML's journey to standardization, Hogan said.

As a proposed standard works its way through the many cycles of an ISO committee, 'you go through many ballots to get something right,' he said.
The InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards Executive Board, representing the United States, voted 'approve with comments' on adopting Office Open XML as an international standard for office documents. The committee's concerns included:
  • Many key terms in the standard are not yet defined, and concepts are ambiguous ' content type, root namespace, source relationship, comments and real-time data formula, for instance.
  • Some of the definitions in the standard are incomplete or incorrect.
  • Normative references are needed for cited standards, such as which version of ASCII is required.
  • A stronger hash algorithm, such as Secure Hash Algorithm-256, should be required.
  • Some informative examples are invalid.
  • OOXML uses a proprietary naming scheme rather than ISO/IEC 11179-5 element-naming rules.
  • Some requirements are not sufficient to support accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act.

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology


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