This Sunday is the deadline for an important standards vote on Microsoft's Open XML file formats, with early reports pointing to an inconclusive result--and a hefty dose of disillusionment with the standards process.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is due to receive votes by Sunday on whether Open XML will be certified as an ISO standard through its fast-track process.
The completion of the vote is a milestone in a process Microsoft began nearly two years ago to make Open XML--the native file formats in Office 2007--international standards. ISO standardization is particularly important with government customers with long-term archival needs.
Local news reports and participants' blogs have reported on some countries' votes before the final tally. In those reported cases, the votes have conditions attached to them that should prevent immediate ISO ratification.
Because these are conditional votes, the technical committee in charge of Open XML will have to address several technical comments on the 6,000-page specification--a process that is expected to go until at least February of next year.
"It's clear that whatever the vote, OOXML will not be a JTC1 standard for a long, long time, no matter what people say next week. It's also clear that unless the process is quickly terminated with OOXML being rejected as unsuitable with comments unresolvable, it will churn on and on and on, no matter what you feel about it or the OOXML spec," Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards and a vocal Microsoft critic, wrote this week in his blog.
Politics of standards
The run-up to the vote has been marked by intense lobbying and accusations of ballot stuffing.
Critics of Microsoft said that it has recruited its partners to vote for Open XML without sufficient regard for technical issues.
Microsoft executives and its allies, meanwhile, had accused IBM of influencing the standards vote inappropriately because IBM employees are representatives on national standards bodies.
IBM has been a fierce supporter of OpenDocument Format (ODF) and its executives have criticized Microsoft's Open XML for being technically flawed, redundant with OpenDocument, and not sufficiently open. IBM supports OpenDocument, a rival document standard, in its Lotus products.
Up to 140 countries can vote in the ISO standards process and in the last several weeks, a number of countries who have not participated in the process until now, including Malta and Lebanon, are now expected to vote, according to Marino Marcich, the executive director of the lobbying group ODF Alliance.
Microsoft's director of corporate standards, Jason Matusow, acknowledged improper activity in the case of Sweden's vote, where a Microsoft employee sent an e-mail to two Swedish voters and enticed them to vote for Open XML in exchange for marketing support.
Matusow said that the situation was identified as inappropriate and addressed by Microsoft Sweden managers. Sweden's vote has now been changed to "abstain." He noted that people from both sides of the debate have joined the process late in the game.
"The issue with the e-mail is extremely unfortunate as it casts a pall over the hard work of so many and the process as a whole," Matusow wrote in his blog this week.
Indeed, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's vote, many people have expressed dismay over the conflict, saying that competition among IT vendors is giving the standards process a black eye.
"As someone who has spent a great part of my life working to support open standards over the past 20 years, I have to say that this is the most egregious, and far-reaching, example of playing the system to the advantage of a single company that I have ever seen. Breath-taking, in fact. That's assuming, of course, that I am right in supposing that all of these newbie countries vote 'yes,'" attorney Andy Updegrove, an OpenDocument advocate, wrote this week in his blog.
It's the principle
Regardless of technical and process issues, the vote brings to light longstanding and seemingly intractable differences regarding the role of standards.
Microsoft executives argue that the world is best served with multiple standards that have different purposes. Open XML was designed to be backward compatible with billions of existing Office documents, whereas ODF started with a different design.
The company whose strategy has long been rooted in proprietary software has opened up access to an important product, yet company foes are seeking to thwart its standardization. Meanwhile, OpenDocument--backed by Sun Microsystems and IBM--sailed through the ISO standardization process without the same scrutiny, Matusow wrote earlier this week.
Although Open XML critics paint it as proprietary to Microsoft, a number of other companies, including Apple, sit on the technical committee and are implementing the specification in their products.
The ODF Alliance's Marcich said that many of the national standards bodies' comments indicated not only technical issues but also concerns over intellectual property rights and proprietary product dependencies.
"What we need are multiple competing products, not competing standards," Marcich said.
A date to resolve technical comments on Open XML, called a Ballot Resolution Meeting, has been scheduled for February 25 to 29, according to a participant.
That resolution meeting could be canceled, however, noted IBM's Rob Weir, if the "no" votes prevail on Sunday.