Microsoft Loses Out in Crucial Open-Standards Vote

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has failed in a first step to win enough support to make the data format behind its flagship Office software a global standard, the International Standards Organization said Tuesday.

This weekend's vote by standards agencies from 104 nations did not provide the two-thirds majority needed to give Microsoft's format the ISO stamp of approval. But they will meet again in February to try to seek a consensus, and Microsoft could win them over at last.

ISO approval for Microsoft's Office Open XML would encourage governments and libraries to recognize the format for archiving documents, which in turn could help ensure that people using different technologies in the future could still open and read documents written today in Office Open XML.

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Approval of its system as a standard would also help Microsoft tamp down competition from the Open Document Format, an international standard created by open source developers and pushed by such Microsoft rivals as IBM Corp. (IBM)

Massachusetts state government stirred huge interest in the matter when it advocated saving official documents for long-term storage in the nonproprietary ODF format.

That prompted Microsoft to seek recognition of Open XML by the global standards body, an effort that was backed by Apple Inc. (AAPL), Novell Inc. (NOVL)and the Library of Congress.

Microsoft has offered to license Office Open XML for free to anyone who wants to build products that access information stored in Office documents.

It claims the format is richer than ODF because, being based on XML computer language, it can store the layout of spreadsheets and legal documents created with Office 2007.

But Shane Coughlan of the Free Software Foundation Europe, a group of open source developers, questioned whether Office Open XML would truly live up to its name and be open to all. Coughlan said it was unclear whether some of the code requires Microsoft's permission to be used.

"It is important that everyone owns their data, that access does not depend on any one company," he said. "Any serious corporation or government should be dubious about using it if the legality is unclear."

Publishing an open standard means it will be available to everyone, a sort of Rosetta stone that makes sure the key documents of today — whether they be legal texts, novels-in-progress or accounting spreadsheets — don't become unreadable hieroglyphics to future generations.

Despite losing the initial round of voting with ISO, Microsoft was confident of future success, contending that many of the ISO members that did not vote for the format said they would do so when certain criticisms have been addressed.

"This preliminary vote is a milestone for the widespread adoption of the Open XML formats around the world for the benefit of millions of customers," said Microsoft's general manager for interoperability, Tom Robertson. "We believe that the final tally in early 2008 will result in the ratification of Open XML as an ISO standard."

According to ISO, Microsoft had 53 percent of the votes in favor instead of the 66 percent it needed.

The ISO process is essentially a debate that tries to fix outstanding problems so a format can win sufficient support.

But Coughlan said Microsoft's heavy lobbying for Office Open XML had showed that ISO selection needs to be reviewed to make sure one voice could not shout louder than others.

Coughlan and others have alleged that Microsoft unduly influenced the industry committees that advise national standards bodies on ISO votes.

Microsoft counters that IBM has been behind the efforts against Office Open XML.

Microsoft shares rose 8 cents to close Tuesday at $28.81.