Global Economics

EU Probes Microsoft Office Standards Win


The European Commission's antitrust regulators are asking whether the software giant abused standardization processes to push its Office Open XML file format

European antitrust regulators are investigating whether Microsoft abused its desktop software market dominance in its effort to get the Office Open XML file formats standardised.

The European Commission's antitrust regulatory body has sent queries to several European countries to investigate how the standards-setting process worked, a spokesperson confirmed this week. The investigation is still ongoing, the spokesperson added.

Microsoft has also been approached by the Commission on the matter and has promised to co-operate with the investigation.

The investigation stems from a complaint lodged by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), an anti-Microsoft lobbying group. The European Commission said in January it was exploring whether the OOXML file formats are sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products. The Wall Street Journal in February reported the investigation had started.

In a letter seen by silicon.com sister site CNET News.com, European regulators raised queries with the national standards body in Norway to gain details into the local standardisation process. Specifically, the Commission sought information on attempts to influence the debate or vote over the standards proposal.

In response, the Norwegian standards body, Standard Norge, said there was heated debate but not any "inappropriate behaviour that endangered our process", according to a document seen by CNET News.com.

OOXML is a technical specification that describes the inner workings of how to read and create Microsoft Office documents. In 2005, Microsoft started a process to standardise OOXML in an effort to appeal to government customers, who favour standards-based software, and improve interoperability with third-party products.

On Wednesday, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) announced OOXML had received enough 'for' votes for it to be ratified as a standard. The Commission raised its query with Standard Norge in February before the results of the ISO ballot were published. The approval of OOXML reversed a previous failed attempt at gaining standards approval in September.

In some cases, people favourable to Microsoft's pro-OOXML position joined standards bodies late in the process, bringing protests from Microsoft's foes. In addition, there have been reports of irregularities in the run-up to the most recent voting, which ended on Saturday.

The head of the committee established to form Norway's position on OOXML wrote a letter to the ISO, complaining that the country's "yes" vote did not represent the views of most committee members. Standards Norge, however, issued a statement indicating that its position will remain "yes".

Microsoft's general manager of standards and interoperability, Tom Robertson, said that queries have been raised with Microsoft too, as part of the Commission's investigation. He said Microsoft will "fully co-operate" with any investigation from the Commission.

In response to the accusations of stacking committees, Robertson said IBM and other competitors have done exactly what Microsoft is accused of doing. For example, an employee from Google, which opposed OOXML standardisation, joined the Danish national committee only three days before a vote.

Robertson said: "It seems that one of the main concerns that people have raised about the process is the broad-based participation in the standards body deliberation. I think it's ironic IBM is complaining about new members in national standards bodies when they have been working around the clock to get people to join."

Microsoft's director of corporate standards, Jason Matusow, said he expects IBM and its allies to launch "an orchestrated process attack in the hope of overturning the ratification of OOXML or at least to discredit what has come out of this long, global process".

In response, an IBM spokesperson said: "As always, the sentiment has to be organic. It will be up to people and organisations in individual countries to decide whether they want to try to appeal this."

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