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Open XML vote: Politics, intrigue, and, oh, some tech

A final vote on a multi-year attempt to standardize the Open XML file formats ends this weekend. After all the debate, is the standards process stronger or weaker?

Saturday evening at midnight Central European Time is zero hour for a vote on Open XML that will, regardless of outcome, leave many people elated and bitter.

National Standards Bodies from 87 countries have until the last moments of March 29 to render a decision on whether the Microsoft-conceived Office Open XML (OOXML) document formats should be a standard at the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization.

Based on blogs and early reports, it's clear the vote could go either way.

Even the person who helped spearhead the effort, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards Tom Robertson, on Friday said "my guess is that it's going to be close."

If the vote is "yes," the OpenXML files formats will become ISO standards, a significant certification that will make the formats more attractive to governments.

In this scenario the ISO/IEC (International Organization for Standardization/International Electrotechnical Commission) committee in charge of document formats will take ownership of the specification from Ecma International, a less influential standards body which now controls it.

If standardized, Microsoft will change its own software to support the changes to Open XML--now the default format for Office 2007--that came about during the multi-year process.

If the vote is "no," Ecma has the option of resubmitting the specification to ISO for consideration and the myriad foes of the effort can declare victory.

Dirty dealings?
The entire saga, started in 2005, has exposed deep-seated--some say "irrational"--antagonism towards Microsoft from its competitors and some open-source advocates.

One of the largest complaints about the standards bid is that Microsoft and Ecma chose ISO's Fast-Track accelerated process for a complicated, 6,000-page technical document, a process which many said was simply inappropriate or, worse, an attempt to manipulate the ISO for Microsoft's purposes.

But those complaints merely scratch the surface of an anti-Microsoft, anti-Open XML campaign that has been fought on the Web and in meetings of international standards delegates.

Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, has called Open XML redundant with ODF, technically flawed, product-specific, and Microsoft-controlled. He created a "OOXML is a bad idea" blog compendium. Standards expert and ODF advocate Andy Updegrove offered his own list of why not to approve OOXML, saying that it could risk the civic rights of citizens.

Others, such as Australian open-source consultant Jeff Waugh worried that approval will strengthen Microsoft's desktop monopoly.

In the run-up to this vote and others, there has been intense lobbying on both sides. Microsoft employees have been accused of trying to unfairly influence the process in different countries, including Poland.

Some votes are already known. The U.S. delegation said it will vote Yes for ISO certification and the Czech Republic has changed its previous vote to Yes following a Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva last month. Polandis said to have voted Yes as well.

India, Brazil, and Cuba will vote No, according to published reports. The U.K. is said to be considering a change to Yes, while Australia is said to be moving toward an Abstain vote, and Germany is said to have decided on a Yes vote.

The official tally is not expected to be known until Monday, March 31.

A black eye for standards process?
But even before official tally is done, the fervent campaign to stop Open XML's standardization has caused some people in unlikely places to join the pro-Open XML cause.

Novell vice president of open source Miguel de Icaza on Wednesday wrote a blog where he argued that standardization of Open XML would be good for the open-source and free software movement, particularly for desktop software.

"It is a time for all of those strong advocates of open standards to stop talking, and start walking. I look forward for all that energy that went into discussing the pros and cons of OOXML to join an open source project and start contributing code, documentation, support, create support forums, file good bug reports and help us make free and open source software better," he wrote.

Meanwhile, the editor of the OpenDocument specification, Patrick Durusau, said that if Open XML is not published and amended through the ISO standards process, many products will suffer, including OpenOffice, the open-source alternative to Microsoft Office.

Without standardization, OpenOffice and other ODF-based will not have the best available technical foundation to share documents with Office, he said. "The bottom line is that OpenDocument, among others, will lose if OpenXML loses," he wrote. (Click for PDF.)

Others have expressed their disillusionment with the standards process as a whole, even those who work for the ISO.

The former convener, Martin Bryan, of the joint ISO/IEC committee working on document standards said that corporations are exerting more and more influence over the technical people at national standards bodies.

"The days of open standards development are fast disappearing," he wrote last November. "Instead we are getting 'standardization by corporation,' something I have been fighting for 20 years."

Microsoft's Robertson argued that all the barbs that Microsoft has taken during the Open XML standardization debate ultimately have helped widen the number of people involved with it and drive its market adoption.

He noted that Open XML is already being implemented in products from Apple, IBM, and open-source projects. ISO standardization, rather than keeping it at Ecma, means that the specification will have more scrutiny and participation as it progresses, he said.

"Companies with commercial interests on either side will have a view and express it. We hope that the debate can be focused on the technology and the best interests of growing the IT industry rather than ad hominem attacks," he said. "At the end of the day, debate is a good thing whatever form it takes."