Document format battle takes shape ahead of meeting

If the ISO does not approve the OOXML format, Microsoft might be forced to rethink its strategy around document formats if it wants government IT contracts

Microsoft faces a tough battle starting Monday at a meeting in Geneva that will influence how widely the company's latest document format will be used in the future.

Representatives of national standards bodies worldwide will attend the ballot resolution meeting (BRM) held by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). They'll be focused on revising the specifications for Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML), which the company hopes will become an ISO standard.

Although OOXML has already been approved by an industry standards body, Ecma International, the ISO designation is key, since governments look to the ISO when choosing technical standards.

OOXML failed to become an ISO standard during a vote last September, but it has another chance if enough countries can agree on the revisions. Those countries will then have one month to vote on the new specification after the BRM.

But Microsoft faces stiff opposition from companies and industry groups behind OpenDocument Format (ODF), which was approved by the ISO in 2006 as a standard. Those opponents contend that having more than one document standard makes software purchasing decisions harder for organizations.

In fact, those opponents are staging their own conference in the same venue in Geneva as the ISO meeting.

OpenForum Europe, an organization supporting ODF and open standards, has invited prominent OOXML critics and advocates of open standards to speak. They include Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google and Hakon Wium Lie, chief technology officer of Opera, the Oslo-based browser developer.

The timing or venue choice wasn't a coincidence, said Graham Taylor, chief executive of OpenForum Europe. The organization has also timed its sessions to not conflict so BRM delegates can attend.

The shrewd timing is clearly aimed at sinking OOXML, which critics say is an overly complex standard and favors Microsoft in intricate, technical ways, even though the specification is open.

"We think there are a much wider set of issues that need to be considered by the national bodies when they come to make their vote," Taylor said.

Microsoft believes there is room for more than one standard. "We do not fundamentally believe that you have a uniform single view of technology ... in order to have interoperability," said Jason Matusow, senior director of interoperability, on Wednesday during a company event with journalists in London.

Microsoft also cites several projects under way to create translators to move formats from OOXML to ODF, and vice versa. However, Microsoft argues that the features of OOXML, a version of which is now used in Office 2007, are richer than ODF.

The meeting of the two sides at one venue has led some to speculate about heightened tension around what's already been an acrimonious debate. But Taylor said Microsoft representatives will attend OpenForum Europe sessions, and that there won't be any "heckling."

Taylor said he has assured the BRM conveners there will be no trouble. Press and observers can attend OpenForum Europe sessions, but the BRM is open only to official delegates from the 87 countries participating.

After the BRM is over, countries will look at the revisions to OOXML and then cast a vote. To become an ISO standard, a specification must win the support of two-thirds of national standards bodies that participated in work on the proposal, known as P-members. It also must receive the support of three-quarters of all voting members.

During the September vote, OOXML failed, receiving only 53 percent of the voting P-members, below the 67 percent needed. Among voting members, OOXML received only 74 percent, 1 percent shy of the mark.

This time around, countries are allowed to change their votes, adding another element of uncertainty around OOXML's fate. If the format is not approved, it means Microsoft might be forced to rethink its strategy around document formats if it wants government IT contracts.

Either way, the sheer dominance of Microsoft's Office suite means some version of OOXML will be used for years to come. The company said its partners are already using it in their own applications, but ODF supporters counter no vendor has come close to fully implementing the 6,000-page specification.

One of Microsoft's partners is Fractal Edge, a U.K. company that makes software that builds visual representations of complex financial data, which it calls "fractal maps." But displaying the fractal maps in older Excel versions required sending an additional configuration file for the map to be compatible with Microsoft's with binary file format, said Gervase Clifton-Bligh, vice president of product strategy.

The company has written an add-in for Excel 2007 to display the maps. OOXML container files can easily hold additional elements such as graphics -- or map configuration files.

Whether OOXML is a standard won't make a huge difference in the company's business since 100 percent of their customers use Excel, Clifton-Bligh said. But if other companies store their data in Open XML -- even if they are using a different spreadsheet program -- it would be easier to move their data into Excel, he said.

"We won't make an add-in for every spreadsheet," Clifton-Bligh said.

The British Library isn't taking a stand on whether OOXML should become an ISO standard or not, said Richard Boulderstone, director of e-Strategy.

The library is facing the long-term problem of how to continue to make its digital collection available. Universal agreement and implementation of a standard is most helpful, Boulderstone said. Also important is how a standard is built into products.

"You can create any kind of standard but there's always going to be different implementations," he said, adding that those characteristics can affect how a document is archived and viewed in the future.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

InfoWorld Technology of the Year Awards 2023. Now open for entries!