Critics Skeptical That Microsoft Will Be Able To Alter Vote On OOXML

Losing the fast-track vote may mean Microsoft has missed its best opportunity to get OOXML approved.
Microsoft is putting a positive face on the International Standards Organization's vote against Office Open XML as a document standard, saying it has only a short ways to go to overcome objections and win final approval next February or March. But Linux Foundation CEO Jim Zemlin and other observers aren't so sure.

Microsoft lost a close vote over the Labor Day weekend to fast track its proposal that OOXML become a standard. There are now so many objections to OOXML on the record that losing the fast track vote may mean Microsoft has missed its best opportunity to get OOXML approved.

"I don't believe the votes are later going to go in the other direction," said Zemlin in an interview. Zemlin is sometimes criticized within Linux ranks for his repeated admonition that Microsoft must be respected as a competitor. But he was unsparing in his assessment of the ISO fast track outcome.

"Despite a targeted global effort [by Microsoft] to influence the vote, the ISO voting process withstood a lot of gamesmanship," he said. There were 10,000 comments listing objections and questions about OOXML, particularly its reliance on Microsoft proprietary products and specifications. It may be possible for Microsoft to reduce some of them as hurdles to approval, but an overall wariness to the OOXML proposal is now more deeply entrenched, he said. The proposed standard is 6,000 pages long compared to the 600 pages of the Open Document Format, which ISO already has approved.

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager for standards and interoperability, in a press release Tuesday said the voted demonstrated "strong global support" for Open XML. "We are extremely delighted to see that 51 ISO members, representing 74% of the qualified votes, have already voiced their support for ISO ratification of Open XML. Many others have indicated they will support ratification once their comments are resolved in the next phase of the ISO process," he added.

There will be a weeklong, Ballot Resolution Meeting in February or March.

Robertson referred to the observer phase of the ISO vote that requires 75% approval from observer member countries. Open XML may be able to achieve that percentage, acknowledge observers. But with a two-tiered ISO voting scheme, Open XML also needs a thumbs up from two-thirds of the 41 participating or "P" countries that worked directly on the standard, and Microsoft came out of the Sept. 3 vote with only 53%.

Andrew Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove in Boston, a firm that advises industry consortia on how to formulate industry standards, has tracked the ISO vote and noted that Open XML would have been defeated if an extra 11 countries hadn't voted themselves into participating status in recent weeks.

The ISO has a largely open or unregulated method of voting on standards, Charles King, with the Pund-IT information technology newsletter, said in an interview. "The ISO operates in a uniquely 'open door' manner with few controls on who joins the voting process or their qualifications."

Previously disinterested countries generated ISO members from Windows-based and Microsoft's partner firms, who became participating members in recent weeks. In Sweden, several of 20 new members joined the Swedish Standards Institute after receiving assurances from their country's Microsoft representative that they would receive "market assistance" and "extra support in the form of Microsoft resources" for showing up to vote for Open XML, according to a blog posted by Eric Bangeman at the ars technica site.

Microsoft has acknowledged communicating with its business partners in Sweden on the issue but said IBM was organizing opposition to the vote.

Jason Matusow, director of Microsoft corporate standards, said in his blog Aug. 29 that only two members of the Swedish delegation had been contacted by their Microsoft representative and offered Microsoft support in exchange for joining the Swedish Standards Institute. The Microsoft representative retracted the offer the same day and notified the Institute of an unintended impropriety. "There was no impact on the vote due to this situation," Matusow concluded.

Twenty-one Microsoft business partners, including 17 Microsoft certified partners, joined the Swedish Institute in the waning days of the debate and all 21 voted in favor of Open XML, said Peter Rock, a respondent to Matusow's blog. He disputed Matusow's assertion that late joiners included both pro and con votes.

As the Microsoft impropriety came to light, the Swedish delegation changed its "yes" vote on Open XML to an abstention.

Among the P countries voting, the U.S., Germany, Poland and Switzerland voted in favor of Open XML over objections from IBM and Sun Microsystems. Intel, HP and Sony representatives voted in favor of the U.S. endorsement.

Voting against were: Brazil, China, Denmark, France, India, Ireland, Korea, and New Zealand. The U.K., Canada and Japan expected to vote no.

Zemlin noted that the several developing nations who showed up in the "no" column "were voting their own interest" and trying to avoid a future where the documents used in their society tied them to one vendor's proprietary systems.

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