On 2nd April 2008 the IT Week magazine described how “Microsoft’s Office Open XML document format standard has been approved as an ISO standard” in an article entitled “OOXML gets the nod as an ISO standard“.

Everyone who has been critical of Microsoft for continuing to promote its proprietary Office format should be pleased with this news, one might think. And indeed an editorial comment in the same issue of IT Week a piece entitled “Microsoft wins format standards” suggested that the “ISO vote endorsing OOXML ends vicious committee wrangling“. But the article admitted that the “decision means that there are now two ISO document standards“. And further “Supporters of the rival Open Document Format claimed OOXML is not truly open because it was not designed by an open process“. In addition they also suspect “Microsoft will find ways to retain control“.

Rowan WIlson on the JISC OSS Watch blog elaborated on these concerns: “the perception that OOXML is in itself an inadequate standard which has triumphed through Microsoft’s expertise at lobbying ISO member bodies for their votes“; “the standard is itself is incredibly long and complex – over six thousand pages” and “Microsoft’s patent non-enforcement promise that accompanies [the standard]“. Similar concerns are described in a Wikipedia entry on OOXML.

But do such criticisms mean that we should not make use of OOXML? I would say not. If you believe in open standards, then you should be prepared to accept standards which have been ratified by a formal standards body. Just as when George W Bush first became president, despite the concerns regarding the voting process and allegations of corruption in certain states, the Democratic party was prepared at accept this decision.

The criticism that “there are now two ISO document standards” misses the point that duplicated standards are not unusual, as the joke “the great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose” illustrates. Indeed, readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0 – not two versions of the same standard, but two different standards – RDF Site Summary and Really Simple Syndication Standard (to say nothing of its original name Rich Site Summary). The battles which have taken place over this popular syndication format seem to be typical of the standardisation process in the IT sector. So we should not be surprised to read of dissent in the document format area.

I suspect that a lot of criticism of the standard is really aimed at seeking to persuade organisations that they shouldn’t be using Microsoft Office products. But that, I feel, is a different argument. Rather I’ll leave the final comment to Richard Boulderstone, the chief technology officer at the British Library who has welcomed OOXML’s approval as an ISO standard, as the establishment of an open well-defined OOXML standards will ensure documents can be viewed through future applications: “We think hundreds of years in the future, by which point this standard won’t be supported anymore. But we’ll be able to create an application to views these documents as they’re based on an open format. Under the closed proprietary format previously used by Microsoft we couldn’t do that.“. Amen to that.