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Analyst: Open XML
Analyst: Open XML's Defeat No Small Setback

By Mark Long
September 5, 2007 11:53AM

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While AMR Research analyst Jim Murphy said that the defeat of Open XML in the recent ISO vote represents a significant setback for Microsoft, he also said he thinks that Microsoft will eventually clear things up sufficiently in the Open XML spec for it to be approved. In the meantime, he said, the delay is going to give opportunities to others.

The defeat of Microsoft's Open XML proposal before the International Standards Organization is more than a small hiccup in the software giant's plans to make its document file format a global standard, some analysts now say.

"I think it's a significant setback and that Microsoft will have to work on the specification itself in order to clear up what some people are saying are its inconsistencies," said research director Jim Murphy at AMR Research.

The comments that accompanied the negative votes against Microsoft's proposal will be discussed next February at an ISO ballot resolution meeting to be held in Geneva, Switzerland.

Simplifying the Spec

To address these concerns, Microsoft will have to find a way to simplify Open XML without handicapping itself, which is no easy task, Murphy noted.

"Until OXML is published, it's not really open because it is so complex," Murphy said. "Microsoft also controls it, which means it is effectively proprietary -- whether published or not -- and thus inaccessible to your average developer."

But the AMR Research analyst also said he thinks that Microsoft will eventually clear things up sufficiently to be approved. "In the meantime, the delay is going to give some opportunities to other tool providers [and] open-source groups," Murphy added. "Sun and IBM may also be beneficiaries."

A Tactic That Backfired

Ironically, Microsoft's use of questionable tactics, such as prodding its business partners at the last minute to join Sweden's national voting body, might have backfired. Sweden's initial positive vote on Open XML was subsequently nullified after it was discovered that some members had voted twice. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering might also have alienated some members of other national bodies voting on the proposal, critics now say.

"We view ISO and its good-faith-based rules as a victim of these actions, as are the members of ISO, and all of those that rely on consensus-based standards," said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. "Notwithstanding all of these many ploys, the right result was still reached, if narrowly,"

Zemlin said he hopes that Microsoft's moves going forward will prove to be more consistent with the good-faith process that normally characterizes the standards approval process. "If not, ISO will need the support of all concerned -- members, bloggers, press, and consumer advocates -- to confront any inappropriate actions in the short term, and to amend its rules and procedures in the long term, to ensure that abuses such as those we have just seen do not become a permanent fixture of the standard-setting system," Zemlin said.

Neither Surprising, Nor New

The International Standards Organization, however, appears to be unfazed by the contentious atmosphere surrounding the recent vote on Open XML.

"Given the major economic stakes, it is neither surprising, nor new, that political considerations can enter into play," said Roger Frost, ISO Central Secretariat's manager of communication services. "However, the development processes are designed to ensure that all stakeholder views are taken into account."

Achieving consensus can involve national delegations moving from initially competing, or even conflicting positions to an agreement that everyone can live with, Frost said. Overall, the process "provides benefits for all stakeholders," he added.

Putting the Open XML vote into perspective, Frost noted that an all-time record production of 1,386 ISO standards were published over all technical fields last year, compared with 889 in 2002. "This suggests that the standards development process is indeed delivering the standards needed by the market," Frost concluded.

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