More EU votes on OOXML trickle in

Hungary declines to vote on Microsoft's controversial document format after IBM warned of "irregularities" in the process; France says no.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Hungary has abstained from voting on the use of Microsoft's controversial Office Open XML format, following alleged irregularities in the country's voting process. France has said no, while the British Standards Institution remains mum on which way it voted.

Office Open XML (OOXML) is currently being fast-tracked through many countries' standards bodies with the aim of gaining certification from international standards body, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Acceptance by the ISO could pave the way for governments to use the Microsoft format.

But Open XML has not been universally popular, and it has attracted considerable criticism, largely from supporters of open source software. Such critics argue that the specification contains proprietary components that would lock governments into a perpetual commercial relationship with Microsoft.

The Hungarian standards body, MSZT, decided to abstain after intervention in the process by the Hungarian Ministry of Economy and Transport, the GKM. According to Tomka Gergely, an IBM employee and member of the MSZT, the GKM intervened after a letter was sent to it by IBM regarding "irregularities" in the voting process, including last-minute changes of procedure and meeting timings.

The Hungarian minister for economy and transport, Janos Koka, sent a letter to the MSZT that said: "I find it disturbing that before the meeting the secretary of the committee announced that instead of the normal two-thirds majority, a 50 percent majority of votes would be sufficient to reach consensus [and return a "yes" vote], even though he had no authorization to do so." The letter was published on legal blog Groklaw.

The MSZT decided to abstain after a meeting was called on Aug. 31 that ended inconclusively. IBM, which supports the alternative Open Document Format (ODF)--already an ISO standard--had taken sides against Microsoft, which was backing OOXML.

"The meeting was without target, purpose and dignity, so the chairman ended it," said Gergely. "Hungary will not send a vote to the JTC [ISO Joint Technical Committee]. It will abstain."

Meanwhile, the French standards organization, AFNOR, has decided to return a vote of "No, with comments". AFNOR said in a statement that technical reasons had led it "to vote negatively on the project such as it is presented". However, AFNOR added three comments: it said it had "not closed the door on OOXML"; it said the standard should be restructured in two parts; and it said that ODF and OOXML should converge. The statement said: "AFNOR proposes a step making it possible to guarantee, thanks to ISO processes, medium-term convergence between ODF and OOXML, and to stabilize OOXML in the short term."

The British Standards Institution (BSI) has also sent its response to the International Organization for Standardization on the subject of whether the Microsoft standard should be certified with the ISO, but has refused to say whether it voted "yes", "no", or "abstain".

The BSI did say in a statement, however, that it had "identified a number of technical issues in the document which need to be addressed before the U.K. can approve...OOXML as an international standard".

ZDNet UK understands that, in the fast-track process to approve OOXML as an ISO standard, the only block which would prevent a specification from being automatically recommended for ISO certification would be a "no, with comments".

However, the BSI did not confirm or deny whether this was correct. "A large number of [BSI] comments have been submitted [to ISO]. Anything you deduce from that can't be attributed to the BSI," said a BSI spokesperson.

"The voting pattern is information we don't disclose," said Richard Taylor, head of market development for the ICT and electronic sectors at the BSI. "It's not our practice to share those details. We've put forward technical comments and JTC1 (Joint Technical Committee 1) will review those comments."

SC34, a sub-committee of JTC1, is the part of the ISO that will deal with whether OOXML will become an international standard. If it is accepted as a standard, this could pave the way to government and public-sector body use.

"The ultimate goal is to develop a robust standard. The job of JTC1 is to arrive at that, if that's possible," said Taylor.

Influencing industry support
Microsoft has admitted attempting to influence its partners to join national standards bodies around the globe with the intention of pushing the OOXML specification through the ISO fast-track process. This has drawn accusations from the Free Software Foundation that Microsoft has tried to "stuff the ballot boxes". Microsoft has also been accused of offering recompense to partners in Sweden who joined committees, allegations which Microsoft said had arisen due to a "confusing" e-mail sent by one of its employees.

Microsoft partners have joined committees around the world at the last minute, which has led critics such as the Free Software Foundation to say that those partners could not possibly be voting from an informed position because the OOXML specification is over 6,000 pages long. Partners simply would not have had time to review the document, said FSF Europe.

However, the BSI said its OOXML technical panel had seen no members joining late, and that membership was by invitation only. The BSI refused to divulge the make-up of the committee, but it said that everyone who applied had been given a place.

Taylor said: "We set up the technical panel with wide industry representation, and we had no latecomers to that. We had 30 technical experts from government, industry, and academia. We put out invitations, then people applied through us to become a member.

"Everyone who applied was given a place. In the end there has been sufficient time for us to pull together comments and give [the specification] a rigorous review," he said.

Earlier this week, Sweden said it would abstain from the voting process due to irregularities in the way votes were cast.

Editorial standards