Document standards war may end in Feb

Written by Vrishti Beniwal | Updated: Jan 31 2008, 05:38am hrs
The long drawn out war between Microsoft and its chief IT rivals like Sun, IBM and Google may come to an end within a month, if the companys open office documentation format, OOXML, is approved as a global standard at the ballot resolution meeting of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) on February 25.

Ecma, the international standards body for IT and consumer electronics, has been entrusted the task of addressing all the issues raised by various stakeholders (various governments and vociferous opponents) on the adoption of OOXML

At present, the industry is divided over the implications of selecting OOXML. Open document format (ODF), which is already ISO approved and supported by Microsofts rivals, had gone through a six-year review process before being made a standard. Microsoft originally developed the specification as a successor to its binary Microsoft Office file formats, but the format got a lot of flak from the industry in its original form.

Both ODF and OOXML allow saving and exchanging editable documents such as books, reports, spreadsheets, charts and presentations. The issue is whether users, the Indian government and corporates for instance, need two different standards, ODF and OOXML (which may not converge) for doing the same job. While the former has several implementations globally, the latter is at a very early stage of adoption.

Open XML format was rejected as international standard at the ISO in September after it failed to secure 66% voted from the participatory members. Most of the national standard bodies of ISO member countries, including the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), had raised several issues with OOXML when Microsoft applied for its standardisation.

But the voting ending on September 2 was only a part of the process. It was to be followed by a five-month ballot period wherein countries disapproving OOXML would state reasons for their decision. Proposals for changes, when addressed by Ecma, may convert a no into a yes, says Vijay Kapur, national technology officer, Microsoft.

By the middle of last month, Ecma had addressed over 50% of the issues and has time till mid-January to address all the issues. Some of the issues addressed so far include allowing ISO-8601 dates, inclusion of language tags, page borders, usage of ISO standards for grammar and international designation of weekdays.

ODF proponents say standardisation of OOXML would duplicate this standard and lead to needless complications. They estimate the direct cost implications of adopting OOXML could be about $700 million, whereas economic impact could have been around $1.4 billion, as the royalty would not go to any native company but to Microsoft.

The company says there are no royalties involved. Though adoption of OOXML would not have an impact on e-commerce, it may affect information exchange between large and small companies, as SMBs will find it too expensive.

Sun Mircrosystems supported the Indian governments decision to disapprove OOXML for not being truly open and royalty-free. According to Jaijit Bhattacharya, country director, government strategy, Sun Microsystems India, Its necessary for the countrys technological sovereignty to adopt technologically sound and royalty free standards.

According to some industry experts, the standard specifying document of OOXML does not specify how older versions of Microsoft word documents can be edited using the OOXML standard, which means people may land up paying royalty to open existing documents with the new OOXML-based word processing software.

In India 30% of the Internet users access the web in cyber cafes. A section of the industry is worried that these cafes may have to shell out a significant amount as licensing fees if OOXML is made a national standard. Microsoft, on the other hand, insists that the format is completely royalty free and leads to cost saving for the companies and the programmers.

Proponents of ODF are of the view that multiple standards for the same task lead to increasing the cost of compliance, testing and implementation. For developers, it increases the time taken to release an application, driving up the cost, while for users it increases the possibility of errors and miscommunication. Instead of submitting duplicative proposals, organisations should join hands to strengthen existing standards, says one school of thought. But Kapur disagrees. Co-existing standards are not unusual in the IT industry. For example, digital image formats, such as JPEG, PNG, and CGM each of which is an ISO standard, meet different needs in the marketplace. Both are document formats, but fundamentally different, meeting different needs In fact, even the recently released iPhone supports Open XML.

As 95% of the task done on a computer is for creating new documents and using the existing ones, interoperability is of immense significance. While some people have apprehensions about interoperability of OOXML, Sanjay Manchanda, director, Microsoft business division, insists, Open XML encourages choice, flexibility and interoperability for IT application developers while ensuring they optimise their IT spend.

Interestingly, Microsoft, which has been defending the OOXML since the beginning, got support from some new quarters recently. Burton Group analysts Peter OKelly and Guy Creese, in an independent research report, describe Open XML as considerably more expressive and more eco-system and application oriented than ODF. The report contends ODF evolution will be slow and complex, largely on account of Suns ownership of OpenOffice.org, the primary implementation of ODF in the market.

They conclude ODF is insufficient for real-world enterprise requirements and its use will be limited to scenarios where there are no requirements around complex document modeling or document fidelity with Microsoft Office applications. In fact, in the bloggers world there has been a talk that IBM, which is strongly opposing the new format, is supporting it in at least four of its programmes.

While the difference of opinion on the practicality of the different formats will continue, the ISO ballot resolution meeting in Geneva by the end of next month will review and seek consensus on possible modifications to the document in light of the comments received along with the votes. If the proposed modifications are such that national bodies wish to withdraw their negative votes, the standard can be published.

The US, Colombia, Germany, Kenya, Poland, Romania, and Uruguay had voted in favour of OOXML, whereas Brazil, China, Czech Republic, France, New Zealand, Norway and South Africa had disapproved it as their national standard. Countries like Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, abstained from voting. BIS members had unanimously voted against making OOXML format as the national standard to preserve national interest. India had identified 84 critical issues with the format at that time. If OOXML manages to become an ISO standard, India will be free to decide whether to adopt it as an alternate national standard or continue with the ODF.

ECMA has already addressed some of the issues identified by India. It is, however, not mandatory for India to accept any ISO standard, says a BIS official, adding India will take a call on the matter after the ISO decides on it in the February meet.