The European Commission wants an open standard for documents. ODF has been approved by the ISO as just that, and was expected to become the official EC recommendation. Yet Microsoft's late announcement that its competing OpenXML document format was also being put before the ISO has led to the EC backtracking on its previous support, instead adopting a wait-and-see policy.
Reticence is admirable when making far-reaching decisions. European states are overwhelmingly dependent on Microsoft products: if the company is saying that adopting ODF as a document standard will make its products less useful, then that is good reason to pause for thought.
Yet Microsoft has given no good technical reason why this should be so. ODF was created by a consultative process, which is some guarantee against hidden agendas. It is an ISO standard: it has passed expert scrutiny and can be considered fit for use. It is properly open: it can be made part of any product without the need for authorisation or licensing. It is available now. None of this is true of OpenXML, which, even as it goes forward for consideration as an international standard, remains under the control of one company, with many of the format's technical details yet to be revealed.
Microsoft says that ODF "would not meet requirements for backward compatibility, for forward compatibility, or for performance", an ironic statement for anyone who's had to migrate data between different versions of Office. It also reveals that Microsoft is mostly concerned with compatibility between Microsoft and Microsoft: not good reasons for the EC to hold back.
If the EC recommends ODF, the worst-case scenario is that Microsoft continues to ignore the standard and refuses to guarantee any use of it within its products. Users could then decide whether to continue to use Office with third-party ODF support, or whether to migrate to different products. That's not ideal. However, with the format in place, planners will have a strong foundation on which to safely specify future systems, something that couldn't happen for years if they have to wait for the result of the OpenXML ISO approval process.
The best case is that Microsoft then adopts ODF because of pressure from its customers. The company would be free to continue to promote OpenXML and — if it is truly serious about openness — retreat from its studious "no comment" when asked about GPL compatibility. Its recent moves toward openness are laudable, its continued addiction to ambiguity and delay is not.
The EC is serious about its long term ambition to end up with one single interoperable standard, and it should not be delayed by Microsoft's moves — at least while the company's motivation remains in question. Lobbyists should concentrate on their member states to ensure this message gets through clearly and quickly: we have our standard, now let us use it.