Microsoft Defends OOXML

In the run up to a final standards determination for its Office Open XML file formats, Microsoft makes its case.

KIRKLAND, WA--As a crucial global standards meeting looms next month regarding the future of Microsoft's Office XML-based file formats, the company is going all out to make sure it gets its message out.

On Wednesday, Microsoft held a briefing near its sprawling corporate campus for select members of the international press in a move to present its side of what has devolved into an extremely contentious debate over the standardization of file formats for productivity applications.

On Monday, the group that's been shepherding the formats through the arduous standardization process, made its last major filing to the international standards body that has them under considerations.

In addition, late last week, an analysis firm released what it says is an independently funded study of the issues surrounding the document formats—a study that tends to side with Microsoft.

All of this is leading up to next month's meeting.

That's when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) plans a week-long meeting at the end of February to review proposed resolutions to technical issues raised by voting nations during formal balloting regarding the proposed standard last September. At that time, Microsoft's formats – called Office Open XML (OOXML) – failed to receive enough votes to be ratified as an ISO standard.

That set the shot clock ticking for Ecma International – the European standards body that is sponsoring OOXML to ISO – to provide resolutions to all of the more than 3,500 issues raised in the balloting. Ecma, which has already granted its own standards status to OOXML, and presumably Microsoft since it originated OOXML as the default file formats for its Office productivity suite, have been hard at work since September, coming up with resolutions for each of the technical issues identified by ISO members.

Monday, Ecma's technical committee presented a report of its proposed resolutions to those comments to ISO. The next step is the February "Ballot Resolution Meeting" in Geneva, Switzerland, where the proposed resolutions will be examined. After that, voting nations will have 30 days to determine whether to switch their September votes or to stick with them. Depending on the outcome OOXML will either be granted standards ranking or not.

Obviously, Microsoft is pushing hard to get enough votes changed in its favor to achieve ratification as an ISO standard. That was at least partly the motivation for holding the press briefing, which resulted in a rather eclectic group of attendees.

"There were journalists from Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S. in attendance," a Microsoft spokesperson told Internetnews.con in an e-mail.

In the original balloting last September, OOXML came close to achieving ratification. The rules for voting and for how votes are tallied are complex and hard to describe. However, suffice to say that if several of the 87 voting nations flip to Microsoft's (Ecma's) side, OOXML could finally become and ISO standard.

However, despite odds that the proposed resolution to OOXML's problems could fail to change enough votes, Microsoft officials declined to consider failure at Wednesday's international press briefing.

"We are confident that won't happen," Nicos Tsilas, Microsoft senior director of interoperability and intellectual policy, told

Meanwhile, ODF supporters insist there is no reason to have two standards for representing productivity application document file formats and that OOXML is too complex.

Microsoft's supporters—and some independent observers—say that having only one standard is not necessarily appropriate. They cite limitations in how much formatting ODF can actually represent when dealing with anything other than the simplest documents.

For instance, ODF only allows for a single table type in a spreadsheet, Peter O'Kelly, research director at analysis firm Burton Group, told the gathered press at Microsoft's briefing. It also doesn't support customized XML schemas, he added.

In fact, whether OOXML achieves ISO standards status or not may not matter that much in the long run, according to an independently funded study by The Burton Group, which O'Kelly co-authored.

"We think OOXML is going to be very successful due to the fact it [provides] the default formats in Office 2007," O'Kelly said. With as many as 500 million copies of various versions of Office in use worldwide, that constitutes a sizeable de facto standard on its own. "We don’t think OOXML goes away even if it [fails to win ISO approval]," O'Kelly said.

Nor does it mean that success for OOXML means failure for ODF, however.

"ODF is going to continue but, especially inside of large enterprises, it's going to play a relatively minor role," O'Kelly added.

The Translator Project

Also at the press briefing, Microsoft officials separately announced that they will start a project on open source development site next month to produce tools to convert files in Office's binary formats--.doc, .xls, .ppt, etc. – directly into OOXML.

Dubbed the Translator Project, the tools will be available under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution license, according to Brian Jones, senior program manager lead for Office as well as OOXML technical architect.

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