The battle over international standards for file formats promises to be a long-drawn one. Just when one felt that the embers were cooling with the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) having accepted Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) format as an international standard (after rejecting appeals from four countries including India), two developments threaten to light the coals again.
First, IBM is threatening to leave organisations that set standards for software interoperability over concerns that their processes are not always transparent (the ostensible references are to the ISO and Microsoft).
Second, according to sources close to the development, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) — which met in New Delhi on the 22nd of this month — is reviewing the ISO transparency issue while simultaneously exploring alternate standards which emerge from bodies like the W3C and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
The BIS is now part of the technical management board of the ISO, hence its members feel they should have more say in the approval processes of internationals standards bodies.
IBM, on its part, is instituting (with immediate effect) a new corporate policy that formalises the company’s behavior when helping to create open technical standards.
In the regions and countries where it does business (IBM has around 73,000 employees in India), it will encourage local participation in the creation and use of standards.
It was only this mid-August that the ISO had rejected appeals from India, Brazil, South Africa and Venezuela, challenging its ratification of the Redmond giant’s OOXML file format as an international standard. The move will pave the way for the final publication of OOXML as an international standard, subject to no further appeals against the decision.
There has never been a more intense global industry debate over open standards. On the one hand is Microsoft’s OOXML file format backed by Apple, Novell, Wipro, Infosys, TCS, and Nasscom.
On the other is the Open Document Format (ODF), supported by the likes of IBM, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Google, the Department of Information Technology (DIT), National Informatics Centre (NIC), CDAC, IIT-Mumbai and IIM-Ahmedabad.
ODF proponents oppose OOXML on the grounds that “multiple standards” are not good, while Microsoft argues that OOXML — a recognised standard by ECMA International already — is a response to evolving technology formats in line with continual evolving technology systems.
The debate appears to be a proxy for product competition in the marketplace, note analysts. It is significant in part because it will influence the future success of Microsoft Office — one of Microsoft’s largest and most profitable product families. ISO approval also means government business for Microsoft since governments worldwide, including India, prefer standards that are ratified by bodies such as the ISO.
Governments are wary of holding digital data in proprietary formats, which could make them hostage to a software vendor. States such as Delhi, Kerala and others from the North-East are heavy adopters of ODF file formats which are open and free (excluding maintenance and support).
Non-governmental and legacy Microsoft Office users, on the other hand, are unlikely to bother about which file formats their office applications use, given that Microsoft Office still has a 90 per cent market share in most countries.
An independent study by Burton Group, the research and consulting firm, indicated two months ago that although moving to OOXML file formats involves some administrative challenges, the opportunities for improved content management and productivity outweigh the short-term inconvenience of migrating from binary file formats.
Office 2007 enables people to choose from many formats, and now the Open XML Translator has enabled read and write capabilities for ODF as well. However, the angst is more about the older Office formats and OOXML, for which Microsoft maintains that it has developed a compatibility pack.
For many organisations, the most significant value of ODF-based alternatives to Microsoft Office may be in establishing a viable option that provides opportunities to negotiate more favourable pricing/licensing agreements with Microsoft.