by Jonathan Robie
Contributing author: Melanie Chernoff
Over the past year, the OOXML debate launched a worldwide discussion about what an open standard should be, how it impacts the technology industry, and why open standards are important.
Last week, OOXML–an XML format designed for Microsoft’s office suite–was approved as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In past articles1 2, we have discussed problems with voting irregularities, the use of a fast-track process without adequate industry review, proprietary Microsoft technologies used without specification, and other problems. Now that OOXML has been approved despite these objections, let’s take a look at the standardization process and the impact that OOXML’s approval will have in the office suite space.
A credible process?
The OOXML debate has raised many concerns about the ISO standardization process, especially for fast-track standardization. Voting irregularities were reported in nearly one-quarter of the “P” countries that voted to approve OOXML. In a highly publicized statement, Norway requested to retract its vote. This compounds the issues raised in earlier rounds, such as new countries and technical committee members joining at the last minute in order to influence the vote, or incentives offered to Microsoft business partners to encourage them to vote for OOXML3.
Even without such irregularities, the ISO fast-track process was not designed allow adequate review of such a large and complex standard. Clearly, ISO needs to examine how such standards are approved, ensuring that they receive thorough and fair technical review, and that politics does not trump this review.
The fast-track review process used for OOXML required over a thousand technical issues be resolved very rapidly. It was simply not possible to adequately review these resolutions in time for the vote. Some of these issues clearly were not addressed well3.
Here’s one example: Microsoft’s date format incorrectly calculates leap year and days of the week for the year 1900, and cannot represent dates before 1900. Instead of fixing this problem, Microsoft added the standard ISO date and time types as another option. Thus, the same date can be on different weekdays depending on which date format is used to store it.
Life for open source after the vote
Microsoft still dominates the office software market. The European Union advised Microsoft to submit OOXML for standardization because it strongly favors open standards that allow it to safely preserve legacy documents and reduce vendor dependence. The adoption of OOXML as an ISO standard will help Microsoft overcome government procurement obstacles that it currently faces due to its proprietary formats.
However, the European Union has launched an investigation into Microsoft’s practices to influence the OOXML vote. It is not clear how this will impact European adoption of OOXML.
While open source advocates are understandably unhappy that OOXML was approved, the management and documentation of OOXML may have one positive side effect. Open source office software like Open Office or Abiword have long supported Microsoft’s proprietary binary formats, and the fact that these formats are now documented will make it easier to provide more complete support for them. And data in any XML format is easier to access and use in applications than proprietary formats.
However, there is still much work to be done. The OOXML standardization process has highlighted real weaknesses in the specification as well as in the ISO processes. We encourage the ISO to examine its procedures for standardizing software–especially the fast-track process–to ensure fairness, adequate technical review, interoperability, and compatibility.
That leaves, of course, the one big question: Now that there are two ISO standards for office document data, what does this means for ODF?
As the ODF Alliance said recently, “ODF will continue to be the document format of choice that best meets the needs of governments interested in ensuring access to their own information, now and in the future.”4
ODF is a simpler format that is easier to process, and less tied to legacy issues found in Microsoft office software. Open source office software is available for ODF formats. Red Hat, like many open source companies, will continue to support ODF and encourage governments to adopt ODF instead of OOXML.
3 For some further details, see http://www.odfalliance.org/resources/Oracle%20Technical%20Concerns%20DIS29500.pdf