Does OOXML vote really matter?

Some experts believe there will ultimately be a merging of the OOXML and ODF document formats, while others fear OOXML adoption will lead to problem of duplicate formats

Next month, national standards bodies will vote for the second time on whether to adopt the Office Open XML (OOXML) document format as an international standard.

Whether the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) should adopt OOXML is a question that has fueled a blog battle between supporters and opponents, ahead of this week's meeting in Geneva to finalize the text that will be put to the vote.

[ The OOXML question is one of several that Microsoft faces in charting its new course, as InfoWorld's Bill Snyder explains. ]

But will the final decision even matter?

Definitely not, according to Andy Updegrove, a Boston lawyer who works with industry standards bodies.

"It really doesn't matter which way the vote goes," he said at the "Standards and the future of the Internet" conference in Geneva on Wednesday.

The event, organized by OpenForum Europe, took place in Geneva's International Conference Center -- just a few floors down from the room where Joint Technical Committee 1 was holding its Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) to debate OOXML's future as a standard.

How OOXML came to be there provides some of the explanation for Updegrove's answer.

Microsoft offered the specification for OOXML, based on Microsoft Office 2007's .docx default file format, to ECMA International, an industry consortium that also hosts the standards for the C# programming language and for ECMAScript, the "standard" version of JavaScript.

ECMA duly adopted OOXML in December 2006 as Standard ECMA-376 and submitted it to the ISO for fast-track approval as an international standard for office document formats.

An initial ISO vote rejected OOXML, with national standards bodies making 3,500 comments on areas needing further work. This week's meeting is attempting to resolve those comments to produce a new draft, which ISO members will vote whether to adopt next month.

However, the ISO already has a standard for office documents: Open Document Format for Office Applications, or ODF, submitted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards and adopted as ISO/IEC 26300 in November 2006.

Whichever way the OOXML vote goes next month, some European governments are likely to specify ODF for their office and archival systems, according to Updegrove.

That, he thinks, will ultimately lead to the merging of OOXML with ODF through "soft persuasion: a small percentage of the government market saying, 'This is something we think you should do. We aren't going to make you do it, but if you don't we're going to take our business elsewhere.'"

If OOXML is not adopted, it will simply ratchet the pressure to merge up a little as a few more governments specify ODF.

One who thinks the vote does matter is Vint Cerf, co-designer of the TCP/IP technology that underpin the Internet, and now chief Internet evangelist at Google.

"If OOXML is adopted, it leads to a problem of duplicate formats for document exchange," he said.

That duplication is bad for interoperability: In the Internet world, standards makers work hard on agreeing "one way to do things, and then evolving it," he said. "We don't reinvent the wheel."

IBM vice president of standards and open source Bob Sutor has an interest in the outcome of the vote, but there is one thing the BRM has already changed, he said: "OOXML has caused a crisis in the standards system."

Although "this is a BRM unlike any other," according to Sutor, there is one way in which it is just like all the others: it is held behind closed doors.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, that secrecy is one of the things that should change in the way IT standards are developed, Sutor said.

"Minutes should be published. This secrecy ... has to end," he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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