Bureaucracy Swamps ISO Meeting on Microsoft Format

FRANKFURT/BRUSSELS, Feb 29 (Reuters) – A meeting to hammerout a consensus on whether a Microsoft document formatshould become an international standard descended into nearchaos this week, people close to the meeting told Reuters.

The closed-door meeting hosted by the InternationalOrganisation for Standardisation (ISO) in Geneva was supposedto help ISO members address concerns that prevented them fromapproving the document format as an ISO standard in September.

Instead, the ballot resolution meeting became bogged downin bureaucracy as the delegates struggled with more than athousand points of order, as well as the 6,000 pages of codethat define Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) format.

"They spent an entire day discussing how they would goabout the process. With the massive amount of work they have todo, most are frustrated that they spent 20 percent of theirtime determining how they were going to vote," said onesource.

"There just is not enough time to cover the large number ofproblems in the document. I believe that a lot of the nationsare frustrated with the process in general."

Microsoft Corp hopes ratification of OOXML, the defaultfile-saving format of Microsoft Office 2007, will improve itschances of winning contracts from public-sector clients fearfultheir archives could become hostage to a proprietary format.

Opponents argue that introducing a rival to the alreadyISO-approved Open Document Format (ODF) defeats the purpose ofhaving standards and say the complexity of OOXML makes fulltranslation of OOXML documents into other formats impossible.

"It’s like Betamax and VHS or or Blue Ray and HD-DVD," saidthe source, referring to battles for home video standards thatheld up the industry until one prevailed.

Microsoft has argued that multiple standards are betterthan one and says OOXML’s higher specifications make it moreuseful than ODF.

"The deep engagement and steadfast commitment exhibited bynational bodies participating in the consideration of the DIS29500 (Open XML) specification illustrates their strong desireto rigorously examine and improve this widely adoptedtechnology," Microsoft’s head of interoperability andstandards, Tom Robertson, said in a statement.

Shane Coughlan, the legal coordinator of the Free SoftwareFoundation Europe — which opposes the attempt to make OOXML anISO standard — said after meeting some of the delegates thisweek that they seemed to be faced with an impossible task.

"Everyone said they were very busy, although of course itwould not have been appropriate for them to comment on whatthey were doing. The question is whether all the comments canreasonably be reviewed within one week," he told Reuters.

"We’re talking an awful lot of concerns. I think there willbe a lot more national discussions when the ballot resolutionmeeting is through."

After the meeting, the 37 national delegations attending,as well as the 50 others who took part in the original votelast year will have until March 29 to adjust their positions,giving Microsoft another shot at a two-thirds majority.

Search engine giant Google Inc, which uses theopen ODF standard in its document and spreadsheet applications,has also lent its weight to the anti-Microsoft camp.

"Our engineers conducted an independent analysis of theOOXML specification and found several areas of concern," ZahedaBhorat of Google’s open source team wrote in a blog welcomingthe initial vote rejecting fast-track approval of OOXML.

Google cited inadequate time to review the specifications,undocumented features of OOXML that would prevent other vendorsimplementing it and the dependence of OOXML on other Microsoftproprietary formats as some of the arguments against it.

Google, which may face a stronger Microsoft as a rival inInternet search and other services if Microsoft’s bid to buyYahoo Inc succeeds, has also embraced open softwarestandards in a cellphone platform it is developing.

The Free Software Foundation’s Coughlan said thedifficulties of resolving the issue within the ISO frameworkillustrated a growing awareness that the implications of suchdecisions went far beyond the software industry.

"In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot more awareness ofthe digital world as a key aspect of society … We’re not justlooking at the traditional economic powers asking questions orbeing involved. This is very broad," he said. "Thestandardisation process itself has been tested quiteextensively by this."(Editing by Andre Grenon)


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