Open XML Rejection by ISO Means Status Quo -- For Now

By Joel Shore, |  Business

Back in seemingly prehistoric times -- September 2005 -- the People's Republic of Massachusetts announced that it would dump the proprietary file formats of Microsoft's Office applications and adopt the XML-based OpenDocument Format instead. Since Office didn't support ODF, the move meant getting rid of Office from thousands of state-owned computers and replacing it with ODF-compliant applications. Much has happened since then. 'Twas the "Save As" heard 'round the world.

State agencies were given a deadline of Jan. 2007 to phase out non-compliant applications (that means Office) and have ODF apps up and running. Needless to say, a pall of grumpiness settled over Redmond, Wash; the company's contract with the state was a lucrative one. Thus, in part, the new XML-based open file formats, called Office Open XML (OOXML), used throughout Office 2007. In the meantime, translators were being built that would allow older generations of Office to read and write open formats.

In July 2007, Microsoft's efforts paid off when the state published version 4.0 of its Massachusetts' Enterprise Technical Reference Model. It added "Ecma 376," the standard based on OOXML. (ECMA, formerly the European Computer Manufacturers Association, is now known as Ecma International.)

And now, the latest chapter. On Sept. 3, after months of heavy lobbying by Microsoft, ISO, the International Standards Organization, failed to garner enough votes among its member nations to adopt ISO/IEC DIS 29500 (ISO's name for Ecma 376) as an official ISO standard. Though Microsoft did its best to spin the vote as a victory, clearly it was not. I'll spare you some astonishingly fuzzy math.

Microsoft isn't giving up, dubbing the rebuke a "preliminary vote." By mid-January, Microsoft and Ecma must respond to the thousands of comments that accompanied the negative votes. Then in Feb., more ISO voting is scheduled on OOXML as it stands or whether member want revisions.

It's a mess. But I don't see this as your mess.

First, I see no fiscally sound reason for an organization or agency to give Office the old heave-ho just so it can operate with an open file format. File format wasn't a problem with Wang, WordStar, WordPerfect, MultiMate, PFS:Write, DisplayWrite, Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro, or anything else we've seen in the last 30 years. Furthermore, it's clear that businesses are tenacious about hanging on to Office 2003 with its familiar menu-driven user interface. Despite its clear technological superiority, the ribbon-bar interface of Office 2007 has been a jarring and nightmarish experience for many. And why go through the hassle of a huge application upgrade and the expense of retraining when everything is working just fine?

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