Microsoft Format Fails in Bid for ISO Approval

Published November 1, 2007

Microsoft’s attempts to compete for state contracts took a hit in early September when it failed to win an open standards designation from a major international standards body for a file format used with its latest line of office software.

File formats dictate how documents work with a PC or server operating system and other end-user applications. Average PC users may be familiar with common file formats such as PDF, GIF, JPEG, and WAV. Microsoft had submitted Open XML to the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization, known widely as the ISO, in hopes of getting an official imprimatur on the format.

Microsoft has positioned Open XML against the Open Document Format (ODF) used by, an open source alternative supported by rival companies such as Sun Microsystems and IBM. is a suite of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications.

At stake are several large-scale contract bids with state governments, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, which require software using open standard file formats. The concern is that documents stored using today’s software remain readable by programs developed in the future. Use of an open standard would likely guarantee that, although Microsoft has contested that use of open standards is not necessary to ensure future compatibility.

Narrow Defeat

Microsoft’s Open XML missed ISO standardization by one percentage point. It needed 75 percent approval from countries casting ballots and received 74 percent. The process now enters a new phase, and Microsoft has another chance to improve the specification and persuade the organization.

The question of Open XML’s status as an open standard is controversial. It has been approved by Ecma International, another standards body, although numerous ODF proponents, including Carl Cargill, director of corporate standards at Sun, have said the Microsoft format needs wider approval. (See “Is ODF Headed for a Bill Buckner Moment?” IT&T News, July 2006.)

In the wake of the ISO decision, IBM announced the free availability of Lotus Symphony, a version of using ODF, a move that may signal greater interest in using ODF. Until now, despite calls from open source advocates for states to use ODF exclusively, few enterprises were using the format or products.

Open standards should not be confused with open source software. Open source software is generally available for free, although enterprises often pay a vendor for maintenance and updates. Although is open source and its file format, the Open Document Format (ODF), is an open standard, open source software does not always use open standards, and not all programs using open standards are open source.

Steven Titch