Early setback for MS format adoption

Paul Furber
By Paul Furber, ITWeb contributor
Johannesburg, 20 Jul 2007

A national sub-committee of the South African Bureau of Standards has voted against the adoption of Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document format.

Although the body was formed in response to a request from Microsoft SA for it to be responsible for national standardisation efforts in the field of document description and processing languages, Microsoft and its partners were outvoted 13-4, at a meeting in Pretoria.

Microsoft has been attempting to get international standards bodies around the world to ratify its document format as an ISO standard, in addition to the recently approved Open Document Format (ODF). However, it has suffered some setbacks, most recently in Italy and the US.

"Of the two formats, ODF has been certified by ISO as a standard and this certification is a big deal because ODF is regarded as an international standard document format," says Paul Jacobson, fellow at The African Commons Project. "This means that ODF has been found to be a high-quality, interoperable and reliable document format."

Jacobson, who represented the ACP and voted "no", says although the sub-committee voted against OOXML, the technical committee still has to make a decision.

"The question is: is the committee going to listen to the sub-committee which considered the issue and made the recommendation, or is it not?" he notes.

Dwayne Bailey, director of the project, likened the situation to the VHS and Betamax format wars.

"We have a situation where the two major document formats won't be interchangeable, much like video shops were forced to keep both video formats to satisfy their customers."

Jacobson says although he is a fan of Microsoft Office as a suite, he opposes the adoption of OOXML because of the fundamental issue of open access.

"There are technical arguments for and against both standards which normally go straight over my head, but to me, the primary issue is a policy issue.

"If a truly open document format is made the standard document format, it means there is far greater open access to documents created and published using that standard. That means that when the government publishes forms to access a pension, apply for an ID book or even legislation, policy documents and other information that citizens should have access to, anyone can access those documents meaningfully."