Microsoft Document Format Voted Down

Microsoft's first attempt to gain acceptance for its Open XML (OOXML) document format from a critical standards body has failed.

The Joint ISO/IEC Technical Committee, known as JTC 1, has 41 Participatory, or "P," members. Of the 41 "P" members, 17 voted in favor of OOXML, 15 voted against the format, and nine abstained. A 66 percent vote (minus abstentions) in favor is needed to pass, and Microsoft got 53 percent of the vote.

XML-based OOXML is the default document format for Office 2007. It is generally considered more proprietary than its chief Office competition, which includes open source suites like OpenOffice and KOffice. They use Open Document Format, or ODF.

Andy Updegrove, a Boston-based lawyer and open source advocate, called the vote a serious blow for Redmond.

"This is a major, but predictable, defeat for Microsoft, given the immature status of the OOXML specification at the time it was submitted to the ISO, and the speed with which Microsoft pushed it through the process," Updegrove said.

Microsoft tried to put a positive spin on the results.

"We are extremely delighted to see that 51 ISO members, representing 74 percent of the qualified votes, have already voiced their support for ISO ratification of Open XML, and that many others have indicated they will support ratification once their comments are resolved in the next phase of the ISO process," Tom Robertson, general manager for Interoperability and Standards at Microsoft Corp., said in a press release. "Given how encouraging today's results were, we believe that the final tally in early 2008 will result in the ratification of Open XML as an ISO standard."

Robertson's quote, however, skims over the fact that two votes were taken, and Microsoft lost both. The body overseeing the OOXML spec has 41 "P" members; that's the vote Microsoft lost with 53 percent of the votes in favor.

A second vote was taken that included both "P" and "O" (observer) members. Of the 87 members who voted in the second tally, 18 voted no and 51 voted yes, with the rest (18 members) abstaining. Since abstentions are thrown out in the final percentages, it means that 74 percent voted in favor of OOXML, while 26 percent voted against it. Since 75 percent is required to pass, the spec failed by just one percent. Thus, Microsoft makes it appear that OOXML is very close to passage, when it still needs to gain substantially more support from the "P" members.

ISO ratification is essentially a seal of approval for a program, and is looked upon very favorably, especially in Europe. Updegrove said European governments show a "strong preference" for software with ISO recognition vs. programs without it. ODF has received ISO certification, which is likely what prompted Microsoft to seek similar recognition for OOXML.

Microsoft is undoubtedly hoping the process will unfold similarly to a recent document format flap in Massachusetts. That state initially rejected OOXML as being too proprietary, and outlawed the use of Office 2007 for state agencies. But after the standards body Ecma approved OOXML in December 2006, Massachusetts reversed course and decided early last month to approve OOXML as sufficiently open. 

Microsoft's next step is to revise OOXML enough to secure the necessary votes to pass it through.

"Technical experts around the world have provided invaluable feedback and technical recommendations for evolving the format," Robertson said in the release. "The high quality of the Open XML format will be improved as a result of this process, and we take seriously our role in working within the Ecma technical committee to address the comments received. We believe that the ISO National Bodies will be pleased with the results."

But Updegrove said that despite Microsoft's portrayal of the votes, the initial rejection stands as a significant defeat.

"It's just spin, exactly what you'd expect anyone to do. If you read some of the statements by Microsoft around the world, they are astonishingly brassy. It's like telling the Big Lie: if you say it baldly enough, people will believe."

The final vote is expected to come in March 2008.

About the Author

Keith Ward is editor of Virtualization Review magazine. You can contact Keith at [email protected].