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Microsoft's OOXML limps through ISO meeting

The proposed document specification has less than one month left to achieve the 66 percent backing required to make it a full ISO standard

The Microsoft-created specification OOXML is struggling to achieve the two-thirds majority backing of ISO members in order for it to become a recognised standard, the aftermath of a high-profile meeting has revealed.

Last week saw 100 delegates from 32 countries meet to discuss how to improve the OOXML specification to bring it up to the level required by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The next stage in the process is for Microsoft, together with the organisation backing its specification, ECMA, to make the necessary changes to OOXML for 66 percent of ISO members to deem it worthy of becoming a proper standard. The company has until 29 March to make this happen or see the specification formally rejected.

OOXML, used within Microsoft Office, has been proposed as an international standard for documents. The rival Open Document Format (ODF), used in the OpenOffice suite and supported by IBM and Sun, is already an international standard. Both define ways to encode tagged information in documents using the Extensible Markup Language (XML). Another standards body, ECMA, is trying to fast-track the Microsoft-backed OOXML through ISO.

Standards-makers had just one week to resolve comments on the OOXML specification. After it was rejected by a vote in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) last September, 3,500 comments were made. From these, 1100 suggested changes were distilled. Last week's "ballot resolution meeting" dealt with 20 percent of these comments, but nodded the rest through when it ran out of time.

The meeting in Geneva did not include a new ballot, but was intended to resolve issues, and give OOXML's proposers more time (until 29 March) to raise the necessary two-thirds majority to move to the next stage of the standards process. Fifty-three percent of delegates voted in favour of OOXML in September.

"Virtually every comment we processed did not survive unedited," said the head of the US delegation at the meeting, Frank Farance, implying that the ones which were passed on a "default vote" would very likely have needed similar work. Dealing with that many comments in a week was like trying to run a two-minute mile, he said.

The resulting specification is now too poor to be considered as a standard, according to Andy Updegrove, a lawyer who runs the ConsortiumInfo Standards blog, who was in Geneva during the meeting: "Many, many people around the world have tried very hard to make the OOXML adoption process work," he said. "It is very unfortunate that they were put to this predictably unsuccessful result through the self-interest of a single vendor taking advantage of a permissive process that was never intended to be abused in this fashion. It would be highly inappropriate to compound this error by approving a clearly unfinished specification in the voting period ahead."

Microsoft spokespeople were more upbeat, drawing attention to the fact that recommendations were technically passed — even though...

...most of them were not discussed. "There were many technical changes the delegates made to really get consensus on some of the more challenging issues, but all of these passed overwhelmingly once they were updated," said Microsoft Office programme manager Brian Jones, who was a US delegate.

Tim Bray, one of the original creators of the XML specification on which OOXML is founded, and a Canadian delegate for ISO, suggested ISO should never have been proposed for the fast-track route. "The process was complete, utter, unadulterated bullshit," said Bray in a blog post. "This was horrible, egregious, process abuse and ISO should hang their heads in shame for allowing it to happen.

"I'm not an ISO expert, but whatever their 'Fast Track' process was designed for, it sure wasn't this," added Bray, who is now director of web technologies at Sun. "You just can't revise 6,000 pages of deeply complex specification-ware in the time that was provided for the process."

Microsoft now has one month to persuade enough national delegates to vote in favour of the specification, but Bray thinks this is very unlikely: "I totally don't believe that ECMA/Microsoft is going to be able to pull together a revised draft of this Frankenstein's monster in that timeframe."

Microsoft Office itself does not comply fully with OOXML, according to ZDNet.co.uk member Goldie Simmons: "Many are worried about the line which separates the OOXML 'standard' from the MS-OOXML 'reality', where features such as scripts, macros and DRM are used but not documented in the OOXML specification."

Other ZDNet.co.uk members claim ODF and OOXML are fundamentally flawed standards, as they were proposed to ISO from vendor consortia (ODF came through the Oasis group).

Gary Edwards, former president of the Open Document Foundation, an industry group that promoted ODF but then rejected both approaches and closed itself down in November 2007, said: "Ecma and Oasis are vendor consortia where the rules governing standards specification work favour vendor innovation over the open and transparent interoperability consumers, governments and FLOSS efforts demand... Shutting that door on Ecma OOXML is proving very difficult exactly because the primary and fundamental rule of ISO interoperability requirements has been breached."

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