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TechTracker: Office Open XML

Office Open XML is Microsoft's successor to its proprietary Office document format. It's touted as an international, open industry standard for word-processing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.

Microsoft created OOXML and submitted it to ECMA International as the IT and communications standards maintainer. OASIS and the International Standards Organization are involved, as are a variety of vendors, including Novell and Apple. OOXML competes with the ISO Open Document Format, which is used in open source productivity suites, such as OpenOffice and Google Docs.

On April 2, ECMA announced that it had received enough votes to approve OOXML as an ISO/IEC International Standard. Not everyone is on board, however: 14% of ISO member nations voted against the standard, and appeals are expected based on allegations that Microsoft improperly influenced voting.

In September 2007, Microsoft submitted a new office document interoperability standard proposal, Office Open XML, to the ISO/IEC Joint Technology Committee 1. OOXML is designed to replace the widely used OASIS Open Document Format. A key facet of Redmond's proposal is placing control of standards maintenance in the hands of the ECMA International body, a move designed to defuse concerns that Microsoft is trying to turn back the clock on document openness.

One problem: Microsoft attempted to broaden the definition of "maintenance" to include version revisions -- for example, creation of OOXML 2.0, 3.0, and so on. When Microsoft can dictate who may maintain OOXML and, more important, just how the standard can be maintained, it effectively creates a proprietary format. This didn't go unnoticed by ISO/IEC JTC1. The September proposal failed to pass the first-round ballot and was punted back to Microsoft with some 3,500 issues to address, including replacement of the proprietary Vector Markup Language with DrawingML.

On Jan. 15, 2008, Microsoft submitted to JTC1 a new proposal, saying it was confident it adequately addressed the concerns of the committee regarding the original OOXML. The OOXML ballot resolution meeting was held in Geneva in late February; those who voted on the September resolution could reconsider their positions based on the new proposal. To pass, the standard needed to carry 66.66% of members from 104 countries. On April 2, ECMA announced that 75% of members cast positive votes for OOXML. Fourteen percent voted negatively, and 11% abstained.

However, there are hurdles. The EU is investigating the methods Microsoft used to lobby for support, and some countries, including Norway, are crying foul. Serious technical concerns remain, including lingering doubts over Microsoft's maintenance standards. And, the industry still cleaves to the Open Document Format (ODF) standard, which is supported by the OpenDoc Society and used in OpenOffice, KOffice, Google Docs, IBM Lotus Symphony, and other productivity suites. ODF plug-ins have been created for Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and the standard is fully ISO/IEC compliant.

Undeterred, Microsoft continues full steam ahead with OOXML, saying the spec beats ODF in terms of greater document transparency and cross-platform interoperability, decreased file sizes, less chance for document corruption, greater compatibility, and easier integration with extant Office packages. "The Open XML specification provides much greater functionality and flexibility than other formats, as well as more comprehensive documentation," says a Microsoft spokesperson.

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