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April 03, 2008 10:33 IST

After nearly 14 months of discussion, debate and controversies surrounding them, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has finally declared that Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) file format has received the necessary number of votes for approval as an ISO/IEC international standard. Approval required at least two-thirds (i.e. 66.66 per cent) of the votes cast by national bodies participating in the joint technical committee (ISO/IEC JTC 1), to be positive; and no more than one-fourth (i.e. 25 per cent) of the total number of (ISO/IEC) national body votes cast to be negative. ISO/IEC DIS 29500 (the technical name for the draft proposal) was originally disapproved in the “fast-track vote” which ended in September 2007, when 3,500 comments were received. India too had said ‘no’ with comments.

However, the comments were addressed at a ballot resolution meeting (BRM) from 25-29 February, after which the national bodies had 30 days to modify their votes if they wished. India maintained its ‘No’. By eliminating redundancies, the comments had been reduced to 1,000 individual issues to be considered. However, there will reportedly be a two-month period to allow national bodies to lodge any formal appeals before the standard proceeds to official publication. There are already protests over votes cast by Norway and Germany.

There has, perhaps, never been a more intense global industry debate over standards since OOXML is backed by Apple, Novell, and closer home by Wipro, Infosys, TCS, and Nasscom. The rival Open
Document Format or ODF is supported by IBM, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Google, and in India, by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), National Informatics Centre (NIC), CDAC, IIT-Bombay and IIM-Ahmedabad.

ISO approval means government business for Microsoft since governments worldwide, including India, prefer standards that are ratified from bodies such as the ISO. Governments are wary of holding digital data in proprietary formats, which could make them hostage (vendor lock-ins) to a software vendor. States such as Delhi, Kerala and others from the North-East are heavy adopters of ODF file formats which are open and free (excluding maintenance and support).

“With 86 per cent of voting national bodies supporting ratification, there is overwhelming support for Open XML. This outcome is a clear win for the customers, technology providers and governments that want to choose the format that best meets their needs and have a voice in the evolution of this widely adopted standard,” said Tom Robertson, general manager of Interoperability and Standards at Microsoft, in a press statement.

Venkatesh Hariharan, co-founder, Open Source Foundation of India, said: “Standards in a crucial area like document formats impact the lives of all computer users daily. Therefore, the manner in which OOXML has been pushed through ISO to support the monopolistic aims of a single corporation is a matter of serious concern. The European Union is investigating the numerous irregularities on the
voting around OOXML and we will support their investigations.”

Meanwhile, the debate around OOXML and ODF appears to be a proxy for product competition in the marketplace, note observers. It is significant in part because it will have a major influence on the future success of Microsoft Office – one of Microsoft’s largest and most profitable product families. Non-governmental and legacy Microsoft Office users, on the other hand, are most likely not to bother
about which file formats their office applications use, given that Microsoft Office still has an over 90 per cent market share in many countries. In developing nations also the software major aggressively competes by subsidising its offerings for governments and students.