Microsoft's OOXML is an ISO Standard

Apr 02, 2008

It's official: Microsoft's Office Open XML format (OOXML) has been accepted as a new standard at a second hearing

This means that OOXML is certified as Draft International Standard ISO/IEC 29500. This time around, the controversial document format received only 10 NO votes from 71 countries eligible to vote: this is just 14 percent. Last fall 26 percent voted against, causing the proposal to fall short of the 25% threshold. Before the final results were even released by ISO, Microsoft issued a press statement saying that the voting was “overwhelmingly” in its favor with 86% voting YES. The original ISO announcement does not confirm this, saying that 75 percent of eligible voters had agreed and that Open XML had thus “received the necessary number of votes for approval as an ISO/IEC International Standard." It is unusual that the ISO results were leaked by members before the official statement by ISO itself, an unusual culmination of a standardization process that has been anything but ordinary.

Microsoft's ECMA man Brian Jones showed how thrilled he was with the decision in a blog entry on Tuesday referring to the decision as "the end of the file formats war!" This can be seen as a reference to the fierce resistance that Microsoft has been up against from major players such as IBM and Sun, but also from organized opponents such as the website which is hosted by the FFII (Foundation for a free information Infrastructure) and has published information on the proceedings and helped bundle the oppostion.

ISO has presented the document format along with 6000 pages of documentation for approval by its member organizations in a controversial fast track vote. In the first round of voting, OOXML failed to secure the required two thirds majority; it has now managed to do so at the second attempt. Following the first disapproval, national committees were able to propose improvements and submit comments; this provoked more than 3500 comments. Microsoft was able to leverage the comments to improve its format. After investigating the proposed improvements in February, national committees had until March 29 to cast their second votes. All told, the Microsoft format secured seven additional YES votes, although the number of opponents and abstentions actually remained unchanged. The Open Malaysia Blog website monitored the voting behavior and published the votes immediately after they were disclosed. The new supporters include South Korea, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Great Britain, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Again, the ISO vote was cloaked in an atmosphere of irregularity, or at least the meeting in February to discuss the proposed improvements (the Ballot Resolution Meeting) had an unusual agenda according to reports. Originally, 25 members were eligible to vote, but the rules were changed to allow for a result. Finally, 32 countries were permitted to vote, but the vote was extremely close: the documents passed the session with six YES votes against four NOs, and sixteen abstentions. Two members refused to take part in the vote. The votes in some countries were cast under unusual circumstances: the Norwegian committee originally voted YES, but the Norwegian committee chairman protested against the resolution on grounds of “irregularities”. In his official statement he wrote that 80 of the members were against agreeing, but that a YES verdict had been passed to ISO despite this.

Irregularity also surrounded the first ISO vote: the current events in Norway are reminiscent of a similar incident in Sweden in late August 2007, where the Swedish standards institute, SIS, revoked its positive vote and declared the vote invalid due to claims of manipulation. The official grounds quoted by SIS were that some votes had been cast twice. However, Microsoft representatives publicly admitted manipulation and attempted bribes shortly after. Other countries reported sudden increases in membership, such as in the USA, Italy and Portugal.

These blatant irregularities led to the European Commission to open an official investigation of Microsoft's behavior in the voting process. Partly to support its attempt to achieve ISO certification, Microsoft opened a number of protocols in February, but the step was too late for the EU. In late February, the European Commission ordered Microsoft to pay a record fine due to anti-competitive behavior. Judging by an EU letter of intent, the Microsoft format is unlikely to find favor with European authorities despite its official ISO status, as the EU will be continuing to use the free Open Document Format (ODF).

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