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A week in the life of Open XML

Norway protests, German says 'ban it', Microsoft says 'Disco'

The main players in the ongoing row over the approval of Microsoft’s Open XML (OXML) file format as an international standard ended the week further apart than ever.

Microsoft spent much of the week talking up its plans to bring a little bit of “harmony” to the divided file format community by again banging the tried, but not yet really tested, interoperability drum.

Microsoft Office manager Brian Jones was in Norway on Wednesday, which according to him was the final day that all resolutions were accepted, to discuss the next steps for OXML including creating interoperability/harmonisation with Open Document Format (ODF).

As part of that standardisation process the format has been renamed to simply Open XML. It's lost the Office tag because the specification is no longer exclusively intended for Microsoft Office.

Meanwhile, a variety of voices have loudly bemoaned what they see as the unwelcome arrival of OXML on the global stage.

On Wednesday rage spilled out onto the usually quiet streets of Oslo where around 60 data experts, led by ex-chairman of the Norwegian Standards Institute (NSI) Steve Pepper, protested about the approval of the contentious file format.

Pepper stepped down from his role at the NSI last week following the group’s U-turn on OXML. It had voted, in September last year, to reject the specification as a standard.

During the protest Pepper, an advocate of ODF, which is used by IBM and Sun Microsystems among others, delivered a speech* outlining why he opposed OXML’s approval with the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO) as a standard.

He said: “ODF was developed... through an open and democratic process. But one important player was absent from that process. The vendor who dominates this market, Microsoft, refused to participate, and they have refused to support ODF since it became a standard.

“Instead they decided to create a competing standard called OOXML and to use Ecma as a back door into ISO.”

Pepper said that he would continue to oppose the ISO’s approval of Microsoft’s file format because “it is not in the interests of users like you and me to have two standards for the same purpose”.

The NSI came under the spotlight last week when the anti-trust arm of the European Commission (EC) wrote a letter to the group's technical committee asking for more details about alleged voting irregularities in the run-up to the ballot’s crucial deadline on 29 March.

The EC, which is currently needling Microsoft over a range of anti-trust claims, has so far remained tight-lipped on the outcome of its inquiries.

Some politicians have also continued to express their opposition to Microsoft’s dominant position in the software market. This week an EU parliament member from Germany’s Green Party filed a question (pdf) with the EC asking it to consider banning the firm from selling its products to European Union governments for up to five years.

Heidi Rühle argued that such a ban was justified following the record fine (€1.35bn) handed down to Microsoft from the Commission in February this year.

The fine covers the period from the 2004 decision to 22 October, 2007. The decision found that Microsoft was charging competitors too much for interoperability information for its servers.

The EC has six weeks to respond to Rühle's question. In the meantime, Microsoft will continue to try and lure reluctant wallflowers onto the dance floor with OXML. ®

*A full English transcript of Pepper's speech has been helpfully provided by Geir Isene on his blog.

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