EU investigation into Open XML vote still ongoing

European antitrust regulators sent letters earlier in the year to European standards bodies exploring how the standards-setting process was working.

European antitrust regulators are investigating whether Microsoft abused its desktop software market dominance in its effort to standardize the Office Open XML file formats.

The European Commission's antitrust regulatory body sent queries to several European countries to see how the standards-setting process was working, a spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday.

The investigation is still ongoing, he added.

The effort stems from a complaint lodged by anti-Microsoft lobbying group ECIS (European Commission for Interoperable Systems). The Commission said in January that it is exploring whether the Open XML file formats are sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products.

The Wall Street Journal in February reported that the investigation had started.

In a letter seen by CNET, European regulators queried the national standards body in Norway to gain details into the local standardization process. Specifically, the European Commission sought information on attempts to influence the debate or vote over the standards proposal.

In response, Standards Norway said there was heated debate but not any "inappropriate behavior that endangered our process," according to a document seen by CNET

Office Open XML (OOXML) is a technical specification that describes the inner workings of how to read and create Microsoft Office documents. In 2005, Microsoft started a process to standardize Open XML in an effort to appeal to government customers who favor standards-based software and improve interoperability with third-party products.

On Wednesday, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) announced that Open XML received enough for votes for it to be ratified as a standard.

The Commission query to Standards Norway came in February, before the results of the ISO ballot were published. The approval of Open XML reversed a previous attempt in September at standards approval that failed.

There was intense lobbying by Microsoft, IBM, and their partners to influence the international delegates from national standards bodies who participated in the voting.

In some cases, people favorable to Microsoft's pro-Open XML position joined standards bodies late in the process, bringing protests from Microsoft foes.

In addition, there have been reports of irregularities in the run-up to the most recent voting, which ended Saturday.

The head of the committee established to form Norway's position on Open XML wrote a letter to the ISO, complaining that the country's changed yes vote did not represent the views of most committee members.

Standards Norway, however, issued a statement indicating that its position will remain yes.

Microsoft's director of corporate standards, Jason Matusow, said on Tuesday that he expects IBM and its allies will launch "an orchestrated process attack in the hopes of overturning the ratification of Open XML, or at least to discredit what has come out of this long, global process."

In response, an IBM spokesperson on Wednesday said: "As always, the sentiment has to be organic. It will be up to people and organizations in individual countries to decide whether they want to try to appeal this."

Update 3:47 p.m. Pacific: Microsoft's general manager of standards and interoperability Tom Robertson said that Microsoft, too, has been queried as part of the investigation.

He said that Microsoft will "fully cooperate" with any investigation from the Commission.

In response to the accusations of stacking committees, Robertson said that IBM and other competitors have done exactly what Microsoft is accused of doing. For example, an employee from Google, which opposed Open XML standardization, joined the Danish national committee only three days before a vote.

"It seems that one of the main concerns that people have raised about the process is the broad-based participation in the standards body deliberation," he said. "I think it's ironic IBM is complaining about new members in national standards bodies when they have been working around the clock to get people to join."

Clarification: Robertson said that a Google employee joined the Finnish committee but a Microsoft spokesperson said that it was in Denmark. The quote was changed.