OOXML ratification faces delay after objection

South Africa's standards body has formally protested the decision approving the OOXML specification.

David Meyer Special to CNET News.com
3 min read
The official standardization of Microsoft's Office Open XML document format could be delayed after a formal objection was made to the International Organization for Standardization.

At the start of April, the OOXML specification won a vote for approval among individual countries' standards bodies. In line with ISO's procedures, there then began a two-month period during which the formal publication of the "DIS 29500" standard could be delayed or even derailed. For this to happen, a "P member" (participating member) of ISO would have to formally protest the decision--and on Thursday, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) became that member.

South Africa's standards body has a sizeable list of objections to the process through which OOXML received official ISO approval. One relates to the way in which those participating in the ballot resolution meeting (BRM), held prior to the vote, were not allowed to discuss alleged contradictions between OOXML and other standards. SABS also objected to the "blanket voting" method used in the BRM, which led to the majority of technical issues raised about OOXML remaining unaddressed--this was inappropriate under ISO's own guidelines, the standards body claims.

SABS also claims ISO did not release a final text of DIS 29500 to national bodies within a month of the standard's approval being announced--again, a prerequisite under ISO's rules.

"In conclusion, South Africa challenges the validity of a final vote that we contend was based upon inadequate information resulting from a poorly conducted BRM," the letter reads. "Moreover, we challenge the validity of a process that, from beginning to end, required all parties involved to analyze far too much information in far too little time, involved a BRM that did not remotely provide enough time to perform the appointed purpose of that procedure, and for which an arbitrary time limitation was imposed to discuss and resolve a significant number of substantial responses, despite the (ISO) directives not requiring any such limitation as to duration."

The letter goes on to claim that OOXML's approval process "has harmed the reputations of both ISO and IEC (the International Electrotechnical Commission) and brought the processes enshrined in the directives into disrepute, and that this negative publicity has, in turn, also harmed the reputations of all member bodies of ISO and the IEC."

Responding to SABS's move, the head of the UK Unix and Open Systems User Group (UKUUG), Alain Williams, told ZDNet UK it was "excellent news." The UKUUG is trying to get the British Standards Institution (BSI) to make a formal objection to OOXML's approval, and is currently waiting for the High Court to address its legal action against the BSI. According to Williams, this hearing has been delayed until Tuesday or Wednesday because the High Court "lost an important bit of paper which said it was urgent."

Steve Pepper, the former head of Norway's technical committee that examined OOXML, congratulated South Africa "on its willingness to stand up for the principles on which standardization work should be based." Pepper resigned from the Norwegian committee over his country's "yes" vote--he also faxed an objection to ISO over the matter but, as the letter did not constitute a formal objection from Norway's standards body, it did not succeed in impeding OOXML's ratification.

"South Africa's action confirms that the battle is not yet lost," wrote Pepper on his blog. "Here in Norway we are working hard to get the Norwegian vote changed back to No and we think we might succeed. If we do, only two more votes will have to be changed in order for the final outcome to be a rejection of OOXML. I urge those of you in countries that voted Yes or Abstain to investigate any irregularities and try to get the vote changed."

As it turned out, Microsoft's victory in the standardization process has proved to be an impediment to its own adoption of OOXML, which is now no longer controlled by Redmond. The next service pack for Office 2007 will support OOXML's biggest rival, the OpenDocument Format (ODF) but, because of the changes made to OOXML during the ISO process, that format will not be supported by Office until its next, as-yet-unannounced, version.

On Tuesday, an ISO representative told ZDNet UK that the organization will not comment on SABS's objection until the appeal deadline closes at the end of May.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.