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World awaits crucial votes on Microsoft's Open XML

Does it make sense to have multiple document standards? Upcoming votes consider this and other technical factors.

There are two upcoming votes on the fate of Microsoft's Office Open XML, a document format that has brought about bare-knuckle business tactics and fierce philosophical disputes.

Microsoft is in the process of trying to gain standard status at the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, a European standards body which holds significant weight, particularly with government customers.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) established a special committee to form the position of the United States in that upcoming ISO vote.

On Monday, the executive board of the ANSI committee, called the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), issued a statement saying that it has not yet reached a decision on the ISO vote on September 2.

In an indication of how much attention Open XML has gotten, the committee expressed "appreciation for the large number of stakeholder inputs received and acknowledges that full and careful consideration of the comments will take some time," according to the statement.

The statement indicated that the board will have a position ready by September 2. But some commenters have said just the size of the specification, sometimes referred to as OOXML, is making the vote harder.

"What will happen next remains to be seen, but it has become increasingly clear in the United States as well as elsewhere around the world that the sheer length of the OOXML specification and the speed with which it has been pushed through the process by Microsoft may be working against its sponsor," wrote attorney Andrew Updegrove, an advocate of the rival Open Document Format (ODF) standard, Monday in his blog.

The upcoming votes appear to be bringing to a head two seemingly intractable viewpoints: is it better to have a single standard or choice between more than one?

Microsoft executives have often said that ODF and Open XML serve different purposes and anticipate other document standards will come about. Open XML has already been certified as an Ecma International standard.

That's not how many ODF advocates see it, though.

"Competing products is a good thing; competing standards will add costs, uncertainty and confusion to the Commonwealth and its citizens alike," Marino Marcich, managing director of the advocacy group ODF Alliance, wrote in response to Massachusetts' proposal to accept Open XML as a "an open standard."

Meanwhile, Microsoft rivals are accusing the company of bullying its way through a standards process.

"The fundamental question is whether a large company with a lot of money and business partners will essentially be able to stack committees so that they are out of balance and therefore buy an ISO standard. I, for one, do not think this is appropriate. I doubt ISO does either," Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, wrote earlier this month in his personal blog.

For its part, Microsoft is optimistic in the upcoming ANSI and ISO votes.

"The decision by the INCITS Executive Board to issue a ballot of 'yes' with comments shows positive momentum behind ISO/IEC ratification of Open XML," said Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards.

For those readers who made it this far into this post, please share your opinions in the talkbacks. Does it make sense to have multiple digital document standards?