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Office Open XML is an ISO standard: Now what?

Microsoft confirms Open XML has gained ISO ratification. Looking ahead, expect scrutiny of the standards process and minimal change in the marketplace.

It's all over except the press release. But in other ways, it's just the beginning.

After a document appeared on Tuesday showing that Office Open XML (OOXML) gained enough votes to be ratified as an ISO standard, Microsoft on Tuesday confirmed the result.

The company's bid--started in 2005--to make the Open XML file formats international standards has succeeded, barring any last-minute changes. The ISO (International Organization for Standardization) is scheduled to issue the official communiqué on Wednesday.

Once final, ISO/IEC certification means that development of the specification, officially called Draft International Standard (DIS) 29500, will be done by members of the ISO, an international organization with representatives from over 100 countries.

On a technical level, changes proposed during the standardization process will need to be incorporated into Open XML, which is now the default document format in Microsoft Office 2007.

In the near term, that means Microsoft, Novell, and other companies that have software that works with the file formats will need to update their products. As the specification evolves in the future, these companies are expected to conform to the changes.

There remains distrust of Microsoft's efforts to promote interoperability between its products and others, including open-source software. But ISO ratification is a significant step towards Microsoft's pledge to support standards, said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group.

Open XML will now be subject to more scrutiny on a technical level and people can feel less apprehensive about any possible legal entanglements from writing software based on the specification, he said.

"A lot of people continue to believe that Microsoft hasn't changed its modus operandi and the onus is on Microsoft to very clearly demonstrate a track record," O'Kelly said. "It's not like 1998. They really are enlightened about the importance of standards."

Asked what impact the ISO status would give Open XML, standards expert Jan van den Beld who now works for the pro-Microsoft industry group CompTIA, said "not much at the very moment."

Government customers and large corporations that favor certified standards now have a choice, he said. "It certainly is one less barrier to doing business in an environment that otherwise would be difficult," van den Beld said.

Not buying it
But many people committed to standards, including open-source advocates, are certain to be dismayed by the ISO ratification.

A number of national standards bodies voted "no" in the Open XML vote or abstained even after a Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in February, which was meant to resolve technical issues. The tally shows that 75 percent voted to approve with 14 percent voting against.

A representative from Standards Norge, Norway's standards body has lodged a complaint over how the voting was conducted but a reversal to a "no" vote does not look like it will affect the overall result.

IBM executives lobbied heavily against the standards bid, arguing that Open XML was redundant with the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard, technically flawed, and not sufficiently "open." A spokesperson declined to comment before the official ISO announcement.

A few days before national standards bodies were to submit their votes, the Free Software Foundation issued a legal analysis saying that the legal protections on Open XML were not to be trusted.

Some issues raised in the long-running debate seem intractable.

Microsoft executives and others have said that different "standards" suit different purposes, while others claim that multiple standards for the same purpose is wrong.

The episode has also stirred up intense anti-Microsoft sentiment.

The editor of the ODF specification, Patrick Durusau, lobbied for Open XML ISO approval to improve interoperability with ODF. At one point, he said that businesses opposed to Open XML were operating with "spite as a business strategy."

One of the most common complaints was that Microsoft and Ecma--the standards body that controls the specification--sought ISO status through its accelerated Fast-Track process, which made thorough examination of the 6,000 specification challenging.

Standards expert and ODF advocate Andrew Updegrove predicted on Tuesday that there will be a thorough review of the entire process.

"Clearly some changes need to be made in how the process works, so that the next time such an important and commercially strategic standard is processed, the process works better than this," he said.