William Jackson | Can't we all just get along?

Cybereye | commentary

The International Organization for Standardization concluded a five-month round of fast-track voting Sept. 2 on a proposed new standard on open documents, and when the ballots were counted, Microsoft had lost its initial bid for adoption of its Office Open XML format.

Just how badly Microsoft was beaten depends on whom you are listening to, but the company probably will get a second shot at making OOXML an international standard early next year. So maybe it is not too late to bring the Microsoft format together with the OpenDocument Format and create one big, happy, interoperable standard.

Microsoft is putting the best face on the defeat, pointing out that 17 of 32 ISO voting countries, or 53 percent, voted to approve the standard, and it garnered 74 percent of the overall vote. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the ISO fast-track rules require 75 percent of the overall vote and the approval of two-thirds of the voting countries.

In cases such as this one ' when the draft standard does not receive the necessary number of votes, but there appears to be no overwhelming opposition ' ISO can call a ballot resolution meeting, in which voting organizations and countries can try to iron out their concerns and take another vote. The meeting would be held in the last week of February, and although ISO has not yet definitely called for the meeting, Microsoft says it is confident of ultimate victory.

But supporters of the competing OpenDocument Format say the degree of opposition to the Microsoft format makes such an outcome unlikely.

OOXML is one solution to a problem that is becoming increasingly troublesome as we move deeper into the digital age: How do we read documents created on a variety of office applications, and how do we ensure those documents will remain accessible when the original programs become obsolete? This issue is critical for governments, which must keep public records long term and make them available without restriction to a single software platform. OOXML was introduced as the default file-saving format for MS Office 2007 in response to attempts by a growing number of governments and organizations to move to ODF, an open-source format adopted as an ISO standard in 2006.

Both formats are schemas using Extensible Markup Language to make word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations created with one application or suite readable by other programs. They both do essentially the same thing, and reportedly they both do it pretty well. But they do it differently, and they do not necessarily work well together. ODF came first, but it was not supported by MS Office, which dominates the office applications market. So Microsoft developed its own format-cum-standard.

Microsoft is involved in the issue, so there is a lot of emotion. The position of the National Institute of Standards and Technology is that there is room for both standards. 'NIST believes that ODF and OOXML can co-exist as international standards,' said NIST Director William Jeffrey. 'NIST fully supports technology-neutral solutions and will support the standard once our technical concerns are addressed.'

NIST is a member of the organization representing the United States in ISO balloting, and its technical concerns helped lead to a U.S. vote of 'approval with comments.' Those concerns are fairly minor and probably could be easily resolved. But other countries ' such as France, which would like to see the Microsoft format more or less rolled into ODF ' are taking more extreme positions,.

Maybe that's not such a bad idea. It would take time and require backward compatibility with existing and previous versions of MS Office, and maybe Microsoft would not even do it. But it would create a broader base of supported applications; simplify the lives of future archivists, historians and prosecutors; and not require users to choose between Microsoft and the rest of the world.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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