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OOXML debate continues behind closed doors

OOXML debate continues behind closed doors

With 6,000 pages of text subject to 1,100 modifications, all to be approved by 120 delegates from 37 countries in just five days, the task facing the standards committee discussing Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document format in Geneva this week is mammoth.

Its work will influence whether OOXML is adopted as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The members of ISO/International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Joint Technical Committee 1 have already rejected OOXML once, in a vote last September. National bodies made around 3,500 comments on the draft standard in that ballot. ISO passed the comments to ECMA International, an industry consortium that submitted the OOXML draft to ISO for standardization. ECMA has whittled them down to 1,100 recommendations for processing at the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in Geneva this week.

Delegates at the meeting must decide to accept each of ECMA's recommendations, reject them or make some other change instead.

It began calmly, with the meeting's convenor, the editor of the draft standard and other officials presenting themselves, according to people familiar with the proceedings, which is closed to outside observers. Then it was quickly down to business.

In alphabetical order, national delegations took turns to raise one of the 1,100 issues with the draft standard that they felt needed change.

Some matters raised were resolved, through a mix of consensus decision and voting, but others were remitted for later decision. Ad-hoc working parties formed, to talk through topics during breaks or overnight. Among those topics discussed was an idea for the creation of conformance criteria for the standard.

Other yet-to-be-resolved comments cover the spectrum from philosophical objections down to quibbles over punctuation.

Discussion was free and open on Monday, according to those involved, but became more polarized on day two. By Tuesday evening the committee was just half way through the second round of national delegates.

Wednesday's business included a proposal to approve a bundle of dozens of "purely editorial" modifications in one go.

National delegations come to the meeting with a view on what it will take to satisfy the objections they made in the September vote, but may have to formulate a position "on the fly" for others. Delegates may come from national standards bodies, or from companies with a technical interest in the matter. A number of them are employees of Microsoft, but also of IBM, seen as a staunch opponent of OOXML. IBM favors the rival OpenDocument Format, which has already won ISO approval as standard ISO/IEC 26300 and is used by StarOffice, Lotus Symphony and OpenOffice.org.

In the committee room, delegates are making use of technology, with some quietly exchanging views by instant messaging during debate, say insiders. The meeting room at Geneva's International Conference Center has an open Wi-Fi network and mobile phones are allowed in the room, although delegates have been asked not to take photographs.

There's not much to photograph, in any case, said one delegate. "There's no shouting, no throwing chairs. It's all very polite."

The committee must find some way to deal with all 1,100 comments by Friday night -- although that may not mean discussing them individually. Three proposals are apparently on the table for disposing of comments unresolved at the end of the meeting: to accept ECMA's recommendations without modification, to reject ECMA's recommendations and leave the draft unchanged on the unresolved matters, or to conduct a paper ballot on each.

While the third of those options sounds the most democratic, it robs national delegations of the opportunity to propose their own modifications, say those involved. Yet allowing delegations to submit other options to a paper ballot after the meeting is itself fraught with complications, as there is no guarantee of a majority vote -- and then no meeting in which to reach consensus.

After the meeting closes, the editor of the draft standard will compile all the approved modifications into a new draft. Delegates will report back to their national standards bodies, and each will have 30 days to decide whether they approve the revised text and seal OOXML's fate as an international standard.


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