South Africa votes against Microsoft new document file format


Last weekend South Africa voted against a Microsoft proposal to have a new document file format adopted as an international standard. Whatever the outcome of the vote, the process has provided a fascinating insight into the threats facing Microsoft.

If you’ve used Office 2007, the latest version of Microsoft’s hegemonic productivity suite, you’ll have noticed that it saves files in a new file format that is incompatible with previous versions of the software. Most users simply regard it as an inconvenience: to send documents to people using older versions of the software, Office 2007 users have to manually specify that documents be saved in Microsoft’s previous file format.

Microsoft has spent hundreds of thousands of rand in the SA media in recent weeks extolling the virtues of the new format, known as Ecma Open XML, a 6 000-page document which it urgently wants ratified as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It turns out it was wasting its money. At the weekend, SA voted against fast-tracking the file format through the ISO. [Microsoft subsequently has lost its bid to have Ecma Open XML fast-tracked to adoption as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)]

The US company clearly believes that if it is not successful in having Open XML made an ISO standard, Office will lose market share to and other open-source software rivals that have embraced a competing standard known as the OpenDocument format (ODF). Governments are increasingly insisting that their documents be stored in formats that comply with open standards. They don’t want to keep their information in proprietary formats that are controlled by companies that may or may not be around in a decade or two.

But instead of embracing ODF, already an ISO standard, Microsoft has produced a rival in Open XML. Open-source advocates argue that Microsoft is trying to ram through a file format that contains proprietary components.

The war of words between the open-source community and Microsoft escalated dramatically in the run-up to the weekend vote. The company has been accused of using its financial muscle to influence voting. In Sweden, it has been accused of “ballot stuffing” by the Free Software Foundation. And in other countries, the foundation has accused it of recruiting its business partners into national standards bodies.

SA Linux pioneer Mark Shuttleworth also recently weighed in on the subject, calling for Open XML to be rejected by the ISO. In a post to his blog, he said it was important to send a “firm message to Microsoft that the world wants a single, unified standard”.

“Imagine what would happen if there were multiple, incompatible Web document standards? You couldn’t go to any website and just expect it to work. You would need to know which format they used. The fact that there is one Web document standard — HTML — is the key driver of the efficiency of the Web as a repository of information. The Web is a clear example of why ODF is the preferred structure for a public standard.”

It’s little surprise that Open XML is being treated with suspicion. Microsoft has long attempted to “embrace and extend” open standards. Its Internet Explorer Web browser makes extensive use of proprietary extensions — websites that use these proprietary “hooks” don’t load properly in rival browsers. Thankfully, the company was not successful in its efforts to forge a proprietary Web where users would have been forced to use its software.

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