Ex-ECMA chief expects Open XML approval by March

Despite controversy around Microsoft's proposed document format, retired head of international group predicts that members will vote for the standard

With ISO's Sept. 2 voting deadline looming, the recently retired secretary general of ECMA International defended Microsoft's Office Open XML document format against fierce technical criticism.

"Give me any standard, and I bet you I can find an error," said Jan Van Den Beld, who retired in April after 16 years running Geneva-based ECMA, in a telephone interview on Monday with Computerworld.

ECMA is shepherding Open XML, the default format used by Office 2007 documents, through ISO's traditionally difficult approval process.

The international standards group has set a Sept. 2 deadline for the 20 nations that are members of the ISO Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC-1) to vote on whether to approve Open XML.

Van Den Beld, who oversaw ECMA's approval of 229 technical standards, many of which were later approved by ISO, also predicts that Open XML will be approved next spring after a follow-up ISO meeting.

"Ultimately, I think it will get through," he said.

Friends and foes line up
That's no sure thing, however. The document format faces strong opposition from grassroots advocates who want to see free productivity software such as that of OpenOffice.org gain a foothold, as well as from vendors such as IBM.

Opponents argue that Open XML is redundant in light of the technically similar Open Document Format for Office Applications (known as ODF) which is native to OpenOffice.org and was approved as a standard more than a year ago by ISO.

They also argue the Open XML proposal is too long (6,500-plus pages) to evaluate during this abbreviated fast-track process, that it's riddled with inconsistencies and technical errors, and that it covertly continues to effectively grant Microsoft control of the standard.

So far, organizations representing Brazil and China (original news report in Mandarin, with translation available) have said publicly that they plan to vote against Open XML. India is close to finalizing the same position.

On the other side, Germany, the United States, and according to Van Den Beld, Switzerland are all moving to vote in favor of Open XML.

Dueling standards wouldn't be a first
A Netherlands native who served as an executive with Philips Electronics before joining ECMA in the mid-1980s, Van Den Beld said that if Open XML is approved, it would not be the first time that two technically similar formats have become standards.

As an example, he pointed to the multiple DVD recording formats -- including DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, and DVD+RW -- that were all approved first by ECMA and then ISO.

"People believe a standards body has complete control over this. That is completely exaggerated," Van Den Beld said. "You cannot take a position such as 'Sony, I like you better than Toshiba.' As soon as you do that, you are no longer neutral."

Multiple, similar standards, while "not a good result, are, because of patent wars, often an inevitable result," he said.

Merging Open XML and ODF is also not the solution, Van Den Beld said.

"The structure of Open XML is so different from ODF, I don't see how we can bring them together into one standard," he said.

Regarding objections to the Open XML application because of its length, Van Den Beld said that when Sun Microsystems submitted the Java programming language to ECMA in 1999, the application -- which was eventually withdrawn -- was more than 8,000 pages long.

While acknowledging that an Open XML standard may not arm Microsoft rivals and partners with all of the information to successfully build ancillary or even competing products, Van Den Beld says that is not the point.

"A standard is not a product description. It tells you what to do, not how to do it," he said.

ECMA and the standards ecosystem
Created in 1961, ECMA International, which was known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association until 1994, was the first to certify hundreds of technical standards, including the aforementioned DVD formats as well as standards for local-area networks.

He called ECMA's relationship with the more prestigious ISO a "perfect symbiosis," with ECMA helping ISO filter out unworthy standards applications and quickly ratifying the ones that were most urgently needed.

"ISO is necessarily rather cumbersome because, let's face it, there are many, many players worldwide," he said. "At ECMA, our philosophy is, 'Let's write down all of the technical details of the darn thing and then give it to ISO.'"

Far from being rivals, ECMA "is very good friends" with other lesser standards bodies such as OASIS, which gave ODF its first approval, and World-Wide Web Consortium, Van Den Beld claimed. Informal talks about the possibility of merging the groups have even occurred, he said.

As for accusations that ECMA -- and he -- are too cozy with Microsoft, Van Den Beld said he has never consulted with or worked at Microsoft. And he pointed out that ECMA has occasionally antagonized Microsoft -- most famously in 1996, when it led the successful charge to force Microsoft to make the application programming interface to Windows 3.1 a public standard.

ECMA has already agreed to help ISO address the official "comments," or objections, to Open XML, Van Den Beld said. He acknowledged that while there are many objections, he believes, based on past experience, that if all parties "work like mad in the next four months," a sufficiently refined Open XML specification can be created by ISO's ballot resolution meeting in February, during which JTC-1 members can change the votes they cast in September. A final result would likely be known within one or two months after that, he said.

This story, "Ex-ECMA chief expects Open XML approval by March" was originally published by Computerworld.