Microsoft OpenXML format gets ISO approval

Microsoft's Office OpenXML formats are set for a fast track standardisation process after receiving the initial go-ahead.

The international standards body responsible for approving file formats as industry standards has given its initial blessing to Microsoft's OpenXML file format, currently in use within Office 2007.

According to newswire reports, an email from the secretariat of ISO's Joint Technical Committee (JTC-1) on Information Technology, Lisa Rajche, revealed that the specifications for Microsoft's new formats, along with the comments and criticisms from voting countries, would be put forward for ballot.

Although the email did not detail when this part of the process will begin, it is likely to happen shortly, kicking off a five-month review that could see the formats ratified as standards as early as August.

In order to pass muster, the specifications must garner approval from at least two-thirds of the Joint Technical Committee nation members, and at least three quarters of those voting members outside of that, which number 157.

Microsoft has been criticised in the past for the rather knowing manner in which it first submitted the format specifications to the European ECMA standards body, in order to gain the standard recognition there which would put it in a position to take advantage of the fast track process at the ISO.

However, the company has always maintained that it was the EU that asked that it submit the format specifications to the ECMA standards body.

When ECMA submitted the standard to the ISO at the end of February, it included the 'contradictions' - or objections - of some 19 voting nations but left the specification itself unchanged.

A rival standard, the OASIS body's Open Document Format (ODF) has already received approval by the ISO.

At stake is acceptance by the lucrative public sector - key accounts worth millions of pounds - of the various formats for use in office software. Governments and their various departments have woken up to the need to ensure their documents are accessible using different office software suites, without being tied to the lifespan of specific software, or worse still, a specific company.

Microsoft has also been criticised over the 6,000 page specification documentation, which voting countries had just 30 days to read and submit any objections.

Jean Paoli, senior director of XML architecture at Microsoft and co-inventor of the XML specification told us that this document had to robustly manage content migration from older binary office formats to XML. He said there were '350 pages of spreadsheet formulas including every formula, every animation'.

'If they find a way to do backwards-compatibility in 700 pages, I'd buy it,' he said.

Other criticisms levelled at the company question whether there is even any need for more than one revisable standard for office software.

Paoli told us: 'All the graphics formats, they all overlap. Programming languages: do we say that because Fortran exists, we can't have C?'

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