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Crunch time for Microsoft's Open XML standards bid

Editor of the rival OpenDocument file format standard calls for "co-evolution" as officials weigh the fate of Open XML as an ISO standard.

Government technocrats are meeting this week in Geneva to decide the fate of Microsoft's Office Open XML, a document format that backers say is worthy of an international standard but foes call a risk to people's liberties in the Digital Age.

The five-day conference will not directly result in a "yea" or "nay" on whether Open XML will be certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Instead, the "ballot resolution meeting" will allow representatives from national standards bodies one month to revise a previous vote from September, where Open XML was narrowly defeated in its "fast-track" standardization bid at the ISO.

If enough votes are changed in Open XML's favor, the document format will gain an important standards designation, particularly to governments concerned with preserving digital information. Open XML is already an Ecma International standard, which does not hold as much weight as the ISO.

Participants are supposed to determine if technical issues found in the 6,000-page Open XML specification have been sufficiently resolved by Ecma since the September vote.

The voting period, which will last until the end of March, is a critical juncture for Microsoft, which has been seeking to make Open XML a standard for about two and a half years.

Last week, it went further in an effort to show that it is trying to make its software work well with non-Microsoft applications, announcing a high-level interoperability commitment that will also help it meet its legal obligations under European antitrust regulations.

Microsoft said it will open up the application programming interfaces of Office 2007 to outside software programmers so that different document formats, such as OpenDocument Format (ODF), can be the default.

Gray Knowlton, group product manager for the Microsoft Office system, reiterated Microsoft's position that's Open XML, ODF, and other formats should coexist.

"We've said this before, but the goals of Open XML are distinctly different than ODF, PDF or UOF, and hopefully we can begin to separate the conversation about product functionality from the necessity for the Open XML standard. In our view, these have always been different conversations. The addition of these interfaces removes a potential obstacle to the adoption of other standards within our products," he wrote.

That basic view is even shared by some of Microsoft's competitors. Novell, for example, is working to support ODF and Open XML and its distribution of the Open Office open-source desktop application suite.

The editor of the ODF standard, Patrick Durusau, last week took that position as well, calling for "coevolution" of ODF and Open XML (PDF).

But Open XML continues to attract fierce criticism from people who contend that Microsoft has manipulated the standards process in its favor. Microsoft competitor IBM has called Open XML flawed technically and argued instead for a single document format.

Others also argue that Open XML is not truly "open" and controlled to a large extent by Microsoft.

ODF advocate Andrew Updegrove published an essayon Sunday arguing voting against Open XML standardization for social and political reasons.

"The Internet and the Web have become such essential services that the exercise of basic civil and human rights has become increasingly dependent upon equal and open access to these essential resources," he wrote.

Even if Open XML fails in that vote, it's not necessarily the end of the road. Microsoft can resubmit the specification for reconsideration, according to the ISO.