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EC probes OOXML standards-setting process

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European anti-trust regulators are examining the voting process behind the passing of Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) file format as an international standard earlier this week.

The contentious specification secured official approval on Wednesday, having picked up two-thirds of the vote from delegates representing 87 national standards bodies across the world.

But the voting process has been marred by allegations that Microsoft elbowed its way in by abusing its dominant role within the software market.

A spokesman for the European Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes, told The Register that regulators were continuing to scrutinise interoperability issues related to Microsoft’s products following complaints from the Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) group.

As part of that process, the EC formally contacted a number of national standards bodies, including the Norwegian Standards Institute (NSI), requesting more details about possible irregularities in the OOXML standardisation process.

On Monday NSI committee chairman Steve Pepper issued a formal protest to the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO), which is the body responsible for overseeing the OOXML, or DIS 29500 ballot, against Norway’s apparent U-turn on the file format. It had voted to against the specification last September when Microsoft failed in its first attempt to get OOXML, which is used in its Office 2007 suite, adopted by the ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission.

However, the EC spokesman was unable to tell us the outcome of those enquiries as the anti-trust investigation is ongoing.

“It must be stressed that it is not the Commission's intention to influence the outcome of this process, but the Commission considers it essential to ensure that European competition law is not violated in the course of the standard setting process,” he said in an email to El Reg.

In January the EC began formal anti-trust probes against Microsoft in two cases where it was alleged that the multinational firm had abused its strong market position. As part of the investigation into the first case, the Commission said that it would scrutinise OOXML on the grounds that the specification doesn't work with those of competitors.

Meanwhile, the ISO has also come under harsh criticism with many calling for an overhaul of the standard-setting system. ODF advocates such as the Free Software Foundation Europe and the Open Source Consortium have loudly berated the ISO’s standard-setting process following Microsoft's crucial victory on Wednesday.

Respected standards lawyer Andrew Updegrove called for an immediate review of the whole system. He said: "In order for the credibility of the traditional system to be restored, a thorough review of the just-completed DIS 29500 Fast Track process should be immediately commissioned."

Microsoft rival and tech giant IBM, which uses ODF in its office apps, unsurprisingly agrees. It’s offered a somewhat more restrained overview on the standards process, though, which perhaps derives from the fact that it now has to play nice with Microsoft.

“We will continue to be an active supporter of ODF and will be part of the community which works around the harmonisation of ODF and OOXML, when OOXML control and maintenance is fully transferred to JTC1 (ISO/IEC),” said Big Blue in a statement.

However, IBM’s open source and standards veep Bob Sutor was a little less reticent. He said on his blog: “In spite of having significant problems and intellectual property gaps, enough countries have changed their votes from the September ballot to allow the specification to move forward into the publication preparation phase…

"So is that it? Of course not. The process of international standards making has been laid bare for all to examine.” ®

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