Microsoft employee offered incentives for OOXML support

Microsoft admitted Wednesday that an employee at its Swedish subsidiary offered monetary compensation to partners for voting in favor of the Office Open XML document format's approval as an ISO standard.

Microsoft said the offer, when discovered, was quickly retracted and that its Sweden managers voluntarily notified the SIS, the national standards body.

"We had a situation where an employee sent a communication via e-mail that was inconsistent with our corporate policy," said Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft. "That communication had no impact on the final vote."

SIS, which represents the country within the Geneva-based ISO standards body, voted on Sunday to support Open XML.

But bloggers claiming to have been present at the SIS meeting wrote (here and here) that more than 20 companies showed up in the waning moments of the meeting with the sole intent of voting in favor of Open XML.

The story was reported on Tuesday by an IDG sister publication, Computer Sweden. Excerpts of the Computer Sweden article in English are available online.

According to one report, SIS only requires companies to pay a membership fee equivalent to about $2,500 to join. The vast majority of the companies that joined SIS at the last moment to vote in favor of Open XML, according to that report, are Microsoft certified partners.

Computer Sweden reported that the monetary compensation Microsoft was offering would have been in the form of "market subsidies" and other resources to make up for the SIS membership fee.

In a blog post late Wednesday night, Jason Matusow, Microsoft's senior director for intellectual property and interoperability, acknowledged that Microsoft had contacted business partners to support Open XML, though he stopped short of a full apology for that action.

"It is critical to note that the addition of voting members at that time was completely within the rules of the national standards body," he wrote. "While there are many arguments to be had over the relative merits of this rule ... it is a rule nonetheless."

Matusow claimed "many of the partners had been called by IBM as well, encouraging them to join the process and vote against the proposed standard. Many of these companies are partners for both IBM and Microsoft."

Besides Sweden, there are unconfirmed reports of last-minute appearances by Microsoft allies to vote in favor of Open XML in countries such as Norway, Colombia, Switzerland and Portugal.

Robertson dismissed the criticism. Most standards bodies are filled with "an old guard" membership that needs rejuvenation, he said. He also likened Microsoft's recruitment efforts to a voter registration drive.

"Have we been speaking to our community of companies about this issue? Yes, we have," he said. "They needed to know. They, in many cases, decided to participate. [But] there is no basis to allegations that we are gerrymandering the process."

Andrew Updegrove, a well-known backer of the rival Open Document Format for Office Applications (ODF) and an attorney at Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston, said Microsoft's tactics make the outcome of the Open XML vote crucial to the future of the technology standards process.

"I personally believe that this result is essential, due to the severe impact that the events of the past several months have had on the integrity of the standards development process," he wrote in an e-mail.

Others say that Microsoft's efforts, which include lobbying senior U.S. government officials to vote against Open XML, could backfire.

"There has been a positive outcome to the process," said Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, a Washington D.C. lobbying group in favor of the Open Document Format. "Some of the comments that have been received from the countries shine a light on [Open XML] defects. Governments will think long and hard after viewing some of these comments before using the format."

Moreover, countries such as Brazil and China (original news report in Mandarin; translation available) have said publicly that they plan to vote against Open XML. India is also close to finalizing the same position.

Despite the little time that remains before Sept. 2, Open XML opponents are continuing to encourage undecided countries to vote against the standards proposal.

In a statement, the Linux Foundation said the length of the Open XML specification -- about 6,000 pages versus ODF's 600 -- has made it difficult to ensure that it meets quality standards sufficient for ratification. Countries reviewing the specification have raised numerous technical issues about the spec that have not been resolved, and the process hasn't given ISO a fair chance to make sure the spec is in top shape before it gets voted on, the group said.

One negative vote among the 20 member nations in ISO's technical committee will force the group to move to a ballot resolution meeting next February to address the "comments" and other concerns that prompted the vote.

If those problems aren't resolved during that meeting, the specification won't be approved in a revote later that spring. If that happens, the Ecma International standards group -- which approved Open XML and submitted the standards proposal to ISO -- would have to resubmit the specification for a new round of voting.

Robertson, however, is confident that the problems can be resolved next spring.

"We're happy to see all of the attention paid and all of the constructive feedback," he said. "It will help Open XML turn out to be a better standard."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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