Bureaucracy swamps ISO meeting on Microsoft format

FRANKFURT/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A meeting to hammer out a consensus on whether a Microsoft MSFT.O document format should become an international standard descended into near chaos this week, people close to the meeting told Reuters.

The closed-door meeting hosted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Geneva was supposed to help ISO members address concerns that prevented them from approving the document format as an ISO standard in September.

Instead, the ballot resolution meeting became bogged down in bureaucracy as the delegates struggled with more than a thousand points of order, as well as the 6,000 pages of code that define Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) format.

“They spent an entire day discussing how they would go about the process. With the massive amount of work they have to do, most are frustrated that they spent 20 percent of their time determining how they were going to vote,” said one source.

“There just is not enough time to cover the large number of problems in the document. I believe that a lot of the nations are frustrated with the process in general.”

Microsoft Corp hopes ratification of OOXML, the default file-saving format of Microsoft Office 2007, will improve its chances of winning contracts from public-sector clients fearful their archives could become hostage to a proprietary format.

Opponents argue that introducing a rival to the already ISO-approved Open Document Format (ODF) defeats the purpose of having standards and say the complexity of OOXML makes full translation of OOXML documents into other formats impossible.

“It’s like Betamax and VHS or or Blue Ray and HD-DVD,” said the source, referring to battles for home video standards that held up the industry until one prevailed.

Microsoft has argued that multiple standards are better than one and says OOXML’s higher specifications make it more useful than ODF.

“The deep engagement and steadfast commitment exhibited by national bodies participating in the consideration of the DIS 29500 (Open XML) specification illustrates their strong desire to rigorously examine and improve this widely adopted technology,” Microsoft’s head of interoperability and standards, Tom Robertson, said in a statement.

Shane Coughlan, the legal coordinator of the Free Software Foundation Europe -- which opposes the attempt to make OOXML an ISO standard -- said after meeting some of the delegates this week that they seemed to be faced with an impossible task.

“Everyone said they were very busy, although of course it would not have been appropriate for them to comment on what they were doing. The question is whether all the comments can reasonably be reviewed within one week,” he told Reuters.

“We’re talking an awful lot of concerns. I think there will be a lot more national discussions when the ballot resolution meeting is through.”

After the meeting, the 37 national delegations attending, as well as the 50 others who took part in the original vote last year will have until March 29 to adjust their positions, giving Microsoft another shot at a two-thirds majority.

Search engine giant Google Inc GOOG.O, which uses the open ODF standard in its document and spreadsheet applications, has also lent its weight to the anti-Microsoft camp.

“Our engineers conducted an independent analysis of the OOXML specification and found several areas of concern,” Zaheda Bhorat of Google’s open source team wrote in a blog welcoming the initial vote rejecting fast-track approval of OOXML.

Google cited inadequate time to review the specifications, undocumented features of OOXML that would prevent other vendors implementing it and the dependence of OOXML on other Microsoft proprietary formats as some of the arguments against it.

Google, which may face a stronger Microsoft as a rival in Internet search and other services if Microsoft's bid to buy Yahoo Inc YHOO.O succeeds, has also embraced open software standards in a cellphone platform it is developing.

The Free Software Foundation’s Coughlan said the difficulties of resolving the issue within the ISO framework illustrated a growing awareness that the implications of such decisions went far beyond the software industry.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot more awareness of the digital world as a key aspect of society ... We’re not just looking at the traditional economic powers asking questions or being involved. This is very broad,” he said. “The standardization process itself has been tested quite extensively by this.”

Editing by Andre Grenon