Why OOXML will not be an ISO/IEC standard in 2007

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Even though the JTC1 ballot closes on September 2 on Microsoft’s product description for Microsoft Office, namely OOXML or DIS 29500, this will not become an ISO/IEC standard in 2007. This most pointedly means:

  • At this time, you should make no policy decisions based on OOXML becoming an ISO/IEC standard this year.
  • Given the huge number of technical issues exposed in the process, as in the earlier Contradiction Period, you should seriously question any policy decision to adopt OOXML at all.

The reason why it will not be a standard this year is that whatever the mix of votes, there will be some, possibly even a substantial number, of NO votes and these will have comments associated with them. These comments must be dealt with and would likely involve substantial changes to the specification, something I believe Microsoft would be loathe to do.

This goes all the way back to the original charter at ECMA where the intent was stated as “Produce a standard which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats.” That is, do whatever you want, but don’t make any changes that are not what Microsoft implemented in its products.

These comments get resolved in a Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) which is now planned for early next year, 2008. The historical purpose of these meetings is to try to overcome issues that would prevent a specification from becoming a standard. That is, the BRM is highly asymmetrical in its intentions: turn NOs into YESes, but not vice-versa. The opposite could potentially happen, but it is not common practice and no one should try to sell that to you now. It’s just not how things have gotten done.

You should interpret “NO with comments” as meaning “we do not approve because at this point there are significant problems which must get fixed.” This is the way you should vote if you have such strong issues that must get handled. Conditional approval means “NO with comments” so that things get resolved, practice has not been “YES with comments.” The only sure way for you to ensure that your comments get addressed is to vote “NO with comments.”

This business about voting “YES with comments” instead of “NO with comments” is a bold attempt to snatch an approval from rejection by altering historical international standards practice. Don’t fall for it.

This process will go on for several months and so OOXML, if it were to become an ISO/IEC standard, would only do so in mid-2008. If that were the case, it is likely to be a very different animal than it is now. That is, given all the very significant technical problems with it, the final spec would most likely NOT be what is implemented in Microsoft Office today. Microsoft implements ECMA OOXML and not the possible future ISO OOXML, if that ever comes to pass.

Think version problems. Think compatibility problems. Think an Office Fixpack for this that must be installed everywhere. Think converters from ECMA OOXML to ISO OOXML. Think converters from everything else to the various flavors. Think you better brush up on your math to understand the possible combinations. Think a great big mess.

Or, rather, think about why the existing ISO standard ODF is a great idea now and will continue to be so. Think about all those arguments about why a single open document standard is preferable. Think about why those “we need multiple document standards” statements are sounding even more ridiculous than they did before.

I want to leave you with two more points on this.

First, when people start losing the logical or technical fight for something, they start playing procedural games and looking for loopholes. The recent attempt to try to get people to vote “YES with comments” is an example. Look for and publicize others that you discover.

Second, during the Contradiction Period we saw statements like “don’t worry, we’ll take care of that OOXML issue in the Five Month Fast Track Period.” Now we’re hearing “don’t worry, we’ll take care of your negative comments in the Ballot Resolution Meeting, just vote YES now.” My guess for what you’ll hear later if it possibly passes? “It’s a standard, so we can’t change it. Sorry.”

If there are any YES votes on September 2, expect a tremendous amount of spin from the pro-OOXML folks about its success, even if there are more NO votes and the ballot is defeated. I’ve been thinking that we need to put together a list of such spin statements just so we have a checklist. What do you think we’ll hear?

Also See: An “OOXML is a bad idea” blog entry compendium


  1. What do I think we’ll hear if they get Yes votes?

    Profit warnings at Microsoft. ;-)

  2. Predicted spin – [with unspoken meaning]

    “There is obviously a huge demand for OOXML” [From our business partners on the commitees]

    “We will keep working for a choice of standards” [Until OOXML is acccepted and then we’ll work for just one standard]

    “The few technical issues raised need to be worked on” [the technical issued being the committee members that voted NO].

  3. Dear Bob,

    Thanks for the clarification on “YES/NO with comments”. Given the (rightly) very low threshold for proposing any standard, once the standard leaves the committee stage and get submitted, there is no technical way to say “No” to it. Rather, opponent to the standard have to “grind everyone down until everyone eventually give up”. The only way to stop the process the standardization body give a decree to stop the process. Isn’t this a very big loophole in ISO fast track process?

    In my opinion ECMA is making a mockery of the ISO Fast Track process when they submitted OOXML in the form it is submitted. Nobody like their process to be abused. I hope ISO take this into account when ECMA’s fast track authority is reviewed.

    In the case of OOXML, nobody really expects Microsoft to give up. Too much is at stake here. Much more than the C++/CLI. That is why I do expect Microsoft to modify OOXML in order to get the it approved. And therefore, I agree with you that OOXML can be a different beast altogether. As long as they take out all those silly non-standard conformance stuff, I will let the higher power (National Body/ISO) decides whether there is a need for OOXML, in view that ODF do exists. If they say yes, that is fine by me. I might not use it, but that is only me.

    Does approval in 2007 or 2008 really matters in the long run? To me, the adoption of ODF vs OOXML will be decided on the take up of Microsoft Office 2007 in year 2007-2009. If the take up is significant, then Microsoft can do what it does the way it is doing. Rolling out true ISO OOXML in 2009 will not be a problem, and it will fit nicely in Office 2007 SP1 (I am not expecting Office 2009).

    Microsoft will fight you on the beach, in the trenches and in your home. Microsoft is not stupid. It expects some remedial work to be done when it goes through ECMA and now ISO. It is just trying to reduce the size of this work by getting as many YES as possible. Of course, to get it approved now will be the best scenario but I think they will settle for second best.

    One last question, what does all these delay mean to the “Fast Track Process”. Is there a cut-off date where the “Fast Track Process” has to stop and OOXML has to go through the standard process or be resubmitted for “Fast Track”?

  4. Bob
    What is confusing is why not have IBM vote Yes for OXML and then strap MSFT to be tied to a standard? if OXML doesnt pass, no harm, no foul really. Office use wont go away. NOtes (or any other product) wont see a spike in market share based on a save as file type alone. Governemtn mandates or not, that is why ODF converters will fly off the shelves b/c saving into a file type is an easier road for every user versus installing a new app that frankly has less features across the board compared to even last two versions of Office.

    But slowing MSFT office machine down by hitching their wagon to the standards wagon seems more smart to me? You would basically make them be compliant at every turn. It would be a ‘restrictor plate’ (to borrow from NASCAR) on their engine? This pain would be more to OpenSources’ benefit correct?

  5. If the OOXML process stopped today and tomorrow the only ISO standard was ODF, what would be the impact on the market and the daily working processes of the majority of office workers tomorrow?

    Essentially, zero. Nada. Zilch. The market would yawn and keep investing and the office workers would still be saving in .doc formats.

    You’re fudding, Bob. The ship can’t turn that fast or that precisely given the mass. It matters not at all that the standard won’t be approved until next year or even the next. Smart money says that within the forseeable future there will be two major document standards at ISO. What will the market do? Just what they are doing today; choosing based on multiple factors only one of which is the document Save As options.

  6. Len, I disagree. This has been a very long running story. The OOXML saga has been an extensive attempt at owning the one true document standard via market presence alone. As ODF rose in prominence, the tactics changed so that OOXML had to come into existence and get equivalent blessing.

    Those who disagree with such tactics have chosen to take this on as an example of a bad specification being brought forward for the wrong reasons for international standardization. Maybe some think those who oppose this should just roll over, play dead, and yield to what they consider the inevitable. I’m not one of those. So fight or not fight this if you choose, but others have the right to be heard and just maybe make the future standardization process a better one.

  7. Tristan, that’s a dangerous strategy. If you don’t like something, say so at the time your opinion is asked, and not wait for some future additional opportunity, if it ever comes. The time to get things right is at standards creation time. You can also later work on interoperability and compliance, but that’s a different phase altogether.

  8. And for those who don’t think that the market for office software can change quickly, go back and read up on the history of WordPerfect, which many thought had a permanent lock on the market. Or perhaps on Lotus 123, which also seemed completely dominant. Microsoft certainly understands the danger, and is willing to do anything and everything to maintain its market share. The threat from ODF is real, whether or not the average company ever has any direct knowledge of it.

  9. Indeed, things can change quite rapidly. Look the browser’s history : Nescape was there to stay, but when Microsoft declared war, Netscape was defeated in a couple of years. Then Microsoft was sure to keep its monopoly. But within less than 2 years, they lost 20% to 30% of market share to Firefox…

    The office software market is surely less volatile than the browser market. But things are moving there too.

    About OOXML future : my prediction remains that OOXML will be rejected as an ISO standard. The percentage of certitude is decreasing as fast as Microsoft & partners are trying to spin the NB committees, but I remain confident that technical experts will prevail over marketing experts.

    That being said, I’m not sure it really makes a difference for Microsoft :
    – what is currently implemented in Office 2007 is NOT what is described in ECMA OOXML : this is a format that Office 2007 can read, not the format that Office 2007 is writing (e.g. macros, passwords, Sharepoint tags…)
    – I think that ultimately Microsoft will accept to make significant changes to ISO OOXML to get an ISO stamp. But they will NOT change Office to become compliant. Their marketing experts will simply advertise loud and clear that “OOXML is now an ISO standard”, and will blur the differences between MS OOXML, ECMA OOXML and ISO OOXML. This will do the trick for most people, who are not technical experts.

  10. Although it’s moot, imagine if Microsoft had built Office 2007 around ODF. Okay, fantasy-time over.

    I can only speak from personal experience. I was a relatively happy MS Office user from Word 1.1 through Office 2003, even though the .doc file format had been updated and changed so that it was (sometimes) incompatible with previous .doc file formats six times over that period. That forced me to go back time after time and re-save my documents in the newer format, which become more of a time-sink as the years went by.

    Fast-forward to 2007, and suddenly we have a different world. OpenOffice is a strong, viable, free alternative, online word processors and suites are using ODF (none are using MS-OOXML), and what did I get with Office 2007? A big fat new format that is itself incompatible with .doc! unless you constantly work in the aggravating “compatibility mode.” Oh, and if I stayed with Office 2007, I got the privilege of constantly converting and updating any new or old file I might work on. NO THANKS.

    It wasn’t OpenOffice that lured me away from MS Office, it was ODF and how it simplifies the future of my data. I can currently use ODF if I want in 17 different word processors. With MS-OOXML I can do so with one, which I have to pay for the privilege. Beyond the technical or marketed aspects of MS-OOXML, I would ask voters to consider proprietary-free data future.

  11. Hi Bob –

    I don’t think governments should be making policy decisions based on specific technologies period. The goals behind the increased openness of document formats are consistent across any of them – PDF/A (soon to be more of it), Open XML, ODF, UOF…things like control of the data, ease of translation, archival, etc. etc. It would seem much better for governments to be driving towards neutral policy objectives but leaving off before naming individual technologies to acheive those goals. The technology will shift numerous times within the lifespan of any policy decision. Take the MA ETRM policy – it doesn’t specify ISO ODF, it specifies OASIS ODF becuase it has already progressed beyond the ISO-approved spec. I don’t think they should name either – but rather drive towards the higher-level goals of their needs that are met by open formats. Then, the tech staff can evaluate what solutions best meet those needs when they are in a position to make a purchase decision (which may be a delayed from the time of the policy statement).

    As for your statement about changes to the spec – it seems an odd argument considering that your products must go through the exact same process. Specifications go through maintenance and implementations change over time – that is a good thing.

    Anyway – I hope you are getting at least a little time to enjoy the summer.

    Thx –

  12. Jason, thanks for your comments. It has been a good summer, and I hope you’ve enjoyed yours as well. At some point it would be good to have some time to do some work around the house, but there will always be more of that!

  13. The sad thing is that ultimately in the medium term for many this will not be solved in the ISO process but rather in the dedication by industry and end users to takeup ISO/IEC 26300 or ODF. I have spent the last two days being confronted with the issue of the practical vs the ideal.

    In my day job I work at a heavy duty Notes shop. One issue we are grappling with is that there is no practical way to deal with incompatibility with Office documents. People externally insist on sending Office documents. Do we run OpenOffice and risk some fidelity issues or IBM productivity tools with equivalent fidelity risks or simply capitulate and purchase Office. Certainly the last is the easiest practical choice. It is a hard choice to argue against.

    On the one hand I know that a world standardized on one file format will mean in a few years time the problem has gone away, but on the other even leading proponents of ODF such as IBM are not consistent.

    The integration of the productivity tools (rebadged OpenOffice according to some) in Notes 8 failed to provide cross format integration between Notes native and ODF. Further attempting to use IBM Quikr pretty much demands use of Office. Document import into the wiki for example doesn’t work without word installed. I spent this afternoon copying and pasting from notes documents into OpenOffice, saving as .doc and then importing into IBM Quikr. Sad thing is that if Office was installed it would have worked:-{)= Our testing suggests that import of structured text is only available as .doc and to work uses Office.

    The battle of OOXML may be won in ISO, but the war on incompatible formats will not be won until there is sufficient critical mass of the standard for everyone to stop making bad tactical decisions and make good strategic decisions to support the standard everywhere

  14. Tristan,

    if OOXML were accepted as a standard, why would Microsoft be tied to it. If I were Microsoft, I would still offer support for OOXML, but would have a proprietary format as the default.

    As an aside, there is currently no evidence that Microsoft’s document format is actually OOXML. As far as I can make out there is no way of testing it.

  15. Bob,

    you kindly leave out the fact that this ‘mess’ that you refer to is already present for ODF. Name me one complete ODF implementation! Also, OpenOffice versions all do it their own way for features not in the ODF standard (isn’t only ODF 1.0 an ISO standard?) So this mess is something you guys can surely tell us more about.


  16. I think many people underestimate the importance of ISO standardization for Microsoft.

    They currently earn around $1B a month from their monopoly position. If OOXML, or whatever they will call it next, doesn’t make the ISO standard status, all governments in the world wil be LEGALLY required to procure ONLY for ODF compliant applications. WTO rules prescribe that if there exists an ISO standard, official procurements must require them.

    So if MS’ ISO attempt fails, there will be a level playing field overnight. And I don’t see them maintaining their $1B a month continuing very long.

    I think that is why MS is spending such astronimical sums to bribe and buy complete countries’ National Bodies. This ISO standardization is literally worth billions of dollars for Microsoft.


  17. MS is free to implement ODF at any time (perhaps its already done). MS is free to sell what ever applications with what ever formats they choose.

    They are not free to subvert the Citizens of Nations with bribes, however they are clearly doing so. A “Supra-national” can move Millions of dollars of jobs into our out of a given city or country. I watched it happen from the inside at a large telecom operating in multiple US States.

    ODF is a standard. MS Office File Format (MS-OFF) (aka OOXML) is a half closed not specified, half non-conforming xml lock-out for other vendors and lock-in for MS. Besides the lock on desktop sw MS-OFF is also an attempt at a lock in/out for enterprise software. With ODF any vendor or IT shop at a gov or business entity can use any technology (c, c++, perl. java, ruby, Smalltalk!, etc) to interact with standards based STANDARD XML. OR, with “dual standards” (Crock!) or with MS-OFF one company has private inter-operable products at the ready – more leverage by the Convicted Predatory Monopoly to create more locks in more areas, while everyone else is free to deal with a 6000 page incomplete spec that is internally inconsistent, not standards compliant, and retains bugs for application compatibility.

    ODF allows for individual applications to store and retrieve additional data without impact when the document is used with another product – MS-OFF does not do that. The ODF Standard does not need a new version when more vendor-specific info is added. MS-OFF would need a new version.

    See also groklaw.net’s ODF/MS XML page and the Standards Blog

  18. Bob: Don’t stop fighting what you consider a good fight. You have to live the value of your values. I don’t dispute that.

    There are consistent outcomes:

    1. It won’t come down to one format that all the world embraces, kumbayah. There are no rivers without tributaries and estuaries. Multiple document standards have been a fact of life as long as you and I have been in this business and I see nothing that will change that.

    2. Even if Microsoft is unable to get the standard through the process this year, eventually they will. If it results in only two standards, that will be better than a dozen or more and it will reflect the reality of the market at this time. Diplomacy is the art of the possible not the ideal.

    3. A one standard world is not ideal in any case. Complementary standards are. If markup taught us anything it taught us the witlessness of trying to wrap all information in one syntax even if the majority can be and the fruitlessness of trying for one normative implementation even if a reference is useful or an abstract framework is best.

    4. I think the ODF forces are spinning their wheels fighting OOXML while attempting to launch their own competitive products. If IBM and Sun need this battle, they will have to dedicate timely immediate resources that watch all meeting announcements and get there within the rules. I know 48 hours is a ridiculous deadline but if this is that important, keep a bag packed and a charge card at hand.

    MS loss of market share may come as a result of the extraordinarily opaque way support functions are provided. To use ASP 2.0, we have to rely on Google for information. Friction is friction and MS has never figured out which end of the axle to grease.

    Rick Jeliffe is right: fifteen years ago getting MS to even discuss a standard was a futile exercise. Today they are accused of muscling standards but that is a game IBM practically invented so it takes more than the charges or innunendo of wrong doing to hold anyone’s attention without proof.

    If the OOXML technical design is as flawed as claimed, no one will be able to implement this correctly including MS. If ODF is that much better and the features match the requirements, it will win in the marketplace over time. Yet if MS is working with its partners to create an international standard just as Sun and IBM do, then that is better than ignoring the processes. They will get better at it and you are helping them to do that.

  19. Len, thank you for your comments. I certainly have short and long terms goals with all this. Changing the industry for the better around the creation of open standards is definitely one of them.

  20. len,

    The world has settled on a single standard for the web, namely the HTML/HTTP/TCP/IP stack (oh, expect for Microsoft, who has altered HTML for IE and has attempted to alter TCP).

    I do agree that OOXML is an inevitable reality, but I would hate to see it become ISO unless it completely deserves it, otherwise, this devalues ISO certification for *all* standards. I don’t think OOXML *needs* ISO to see significant uptake anyways.

    If ODF does win, it will be because of the interoperability it provides in conjunction with web services that will be able to process a universal XML format for many general business purposes. ODF has the potential to fuel the web services boom a lot of companies have been waiting for.

  21. The world didn’t settle Alucinor. They didn’t get that many choices and at the time the choices were made, few knew how to make them. HTML is a botched job, full of variants, and really has become kudzu impeding innovation not fueling it. If that is the way you want your standards created, well, you have it. HTTP has HTTPS but http has never been more than FTP with security added. It isn’t that impressive. It’s just free. Free is good.

    People sing a song of kumbayah and that is a good thing in that consensus is all you really need to get a system into play. But then when it doesn’t fit a given project, do you alter it or make the project fit the standard? No rivers without tributaries is a fact of fit and function. Will XAML become a standard? Did XUL? SVG is a standard with poor uptake. VRML97 is a standard too early for the infrastructure. X3D is the right standard but is facing IBM’s ambitions for SecondLife which is a loudly touted platform but completely proprietary and by comparision to the standard, clunky and dependent on having large server farm/data center support. The press is both singing its praises and and speculating that perhaps business in virtual worlds isn’t all that good. Historically the same thing happened for HTML/HTTP but will history repeat? Probably not. There are good reasons to question virtual worlds for their own sake without a compelling reason to use them. They are expensive to build and own. If we want that cost to come down and we want interoperability, we need standards but we already have them and IBM doesn’t use them. Why? Why is what is good for The Web not good for Web 3.0?

    My guess: Intellectual Property trumps standards. Bob can do little to change that if that is the direction his company takes so he has to ignore it. The W3DC can’t change to adapt to that direction without violating the participation agreements that are their policy for open standards, free and unencumbered. To make that work, they require membership for contribution then set very low costs for that. Will IBM and Linden Labs join and help or will they continue as they have in public? I don’t know and I’m not privvy to the discussions but I watch because it is for me a test of their ethics. If they can’t step up to it, then all this talk of ODF and OOXML and openness and rah rah is just that: talk, propaganda, BS, a scam for marketshare.

    And so it goes. *THE WEB* tadddaaa trumpets flare drums resound hearts swell and we all salute is really a hodge podge of barely interoperating systems (good enough they say) that force developers to turn backflips to cope with dropped connnections, statelessness forcing server states, difficult design tradeoffs in GUIs to keep them both simple yet capable of supporting complext business transactions, variants in schema languages, graphics languages, polyglot code and on and on. The web is not a simpler design environment. It is more complex by any honest estimate.

    I don’t mind that there are many standards to choose from. There should be. That means we can choose the right one for the job instead of having the standard tell us what the job is and the limits to our innovation. No size fits all. Somes sizes fit most uncomfortably. Choose wisely but choose and be ready to defend that choice.

    The web has changed only one aspect of technology markets: we are trying to be good citizens or we are not and when we are it is barely noticed and when we aren’t it is as noticeable as the world thinks it important and the sad fact is the world watches money more than ethics which means the web has changed the world very little other than to make it go where it is going faster.

  22. ‘..during the Contradiction Period we saw statements like “don’t worry, we’ll take care of that OOXML issue in the Five Month Fast Track Period.’ Care to share an example, Bob? I am sure you wouldn’t just make something up, but my records seem to be missing that comment.

    The Ecma comments document http://www.computerworld.com/pdfs/Ecma.pdf says things like “Issues related to …(whatever)… are appropriate for discussion during the 5-month ballot” (e.g. p12) and “These perceived contradictions are matters for the 5-month ballot” (e.g. p13). I see no mention of ‘taking care’ of anything. Indeed, Bob would know perfectly well, I am sure, that the submitter cannot alter a draft once it has been submitted. Or does ‘take care of’ have some nuance in the culture of large US companies with closed-source office products that I am not aware of?

    By the way, it is great to see this brave new world, with MS sponsoring open source programs for interoperability with ODF systems, IBM doing intensive QA work on Ecma documentation, and Sun writing free plugins to enhance Word. The mutual assistance is perhaps the most paradoxical part of this business.

  23. “Think version problems. Think compatibility problems. Think an Office Fixpack for this that must be installed everywhere. Think converters from ECMA OOXML to ISO OOXML.”

    (Think a three-letter acronym!) Why is that not also true of ODF, as it moves from ODF 1.0 (i.e. ISO ODF) to the new 1.1 to 1.2 (in preparation) and the mooted 1.3? It depends entirely true of the kind of technical changes that are made, not that technical changes are made. And progress to standards is not cost-free, even incremental progress.

    But committees involved in ISO standardization of external technologies are very wary about changing (as distinct from subsetting) those technologies, especially with fast-tracked standards. I think if you look at various real ISO standards for precedent, such as the treatment of ISO PDF/X, ISO Linux ABI, ISO C#, and so on, it would provide a more objective basis for discussion rather than fact-free “think”s.

  24. So, Microsoft are showing their willingness to spend corporate dollars on all sorts of crazy ventures.
    Is ‘Stuffing the ballot at ISO’ a legitimate marketing expense ?

    But they do need to make their dollars somehow. Something needs to be ‘profitable business’.

    http://resources.zdnet.co.uk/articles/features/0,1000002000,39288099,00.htm is showing the UK government pondering a ‘digital dark age’, where digital documents from only a few years ago become inaccessible; the documents are there, like music on cassette tapes, but you can’t access them because you no longer have a cassette player in these days of Ipods and CD-Walkmen. And they’re discussing the solution with Microsoft.

    If they come to agreement on what a solution should be, will Microsoft implement it for free (subsidised by profits from Windows and Office ) ? Or will the UK government put a contract out to tender, so someone wanting to make a profitable living out of that business can bid ? Is it a legitimate ‘warranty cost’, where Microsoft would be apologising for making the documents inaccessible, in the most practical way of making them accessible again ?

    It’s a problem that comes from possessing a ‘wall of money’. A pleasant problem for a business to have, in a way.
    Confusing for those of us who don’t benefit from Microsoft’s ‘wall of money’, though.

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