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Open Office standards row heats up

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Microsoft is facing growing criticism of its bid to have Office Open XML (OOXML) accepted as an international standard ahead of a crucial vote by the ISO scheduled for February.

Redmond initially promised that the ISO would have control of OOXML if and when it became a standard. Critics reckon Microsoft is now backsliding on this promise via plans to retain indirect control of the standard through Ecma International, the group that originally rubber stamped OOXML.

The proposals have raised concerns that the ISO would be unable to make OOXML compatible with existing standards, leaving the ISO relegated to the role of publishing a list of errata (corrections), with Ecma left in charge.

The dispute over the oversight plans is the latest in a string of controversies over OOXML concerning allegations of vote fixing and more that wouldn't be out of place in the more heated diplomatic disputes that took place during the Cold War.

OOXML is an XML-based file format specification for documents such as word processing file, spreadsheets, and presentations. The schema was originally developed by Microsoft as a successor to previous MS Office file formats before it handed it over to Ecma International, who approved it as a standard in December 2006.

The specification was controversially put on the fast-track to standardisation with the ISO as DIS 29500 (Draft International Standard 29500). However, a vote of the draft failed to gain sufficient approval in September, despite allegations that MS tried to manipulate the vote of national body members.

Microsoft's partners in Sweden, for example, were given "marketing incentives" in return for paying to join the national standards body. This "ballot stuffing" ploy, which Redmond claimed was down to the actions of one over zealous worker rather than company policy, backfired after Sweden invalidated its vote because of voting iregularaties after it was discovered someone had been allowed to vote twice.

The draft specification was amended in light of criticisms and will now be resubmitted for a further standards vote. Groklaw has published an informative article that highlights concerns about Redmond's possible influence on the February vote, worries about the lack of discussion over patent issues or public accountability, and a run-down on the more colourful incidents in the on-going saga.

One such allegation is that attempts were made to limit the number of delegates opposed to OOXML at a national standards body meeting in Portugal by limiting the number of chairs available at a conference table, excluding representatives from Sun and IBM in the process.

In related office document standards news, the State of New York is entering the final days of public consultation on whether to adopt ODF (Open Document Format), a rival approach that's already been ratified by the ISO, or OOXML as a document standard.

The public consultation ends on 28 December ahead of plans by Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, New York state's chief information officer, to publish the findings on 15 January 2008. ®

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