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IIT Bombay, Microsoft at loggerheads

By Leslie D'Monte in Mumbai
May 28, 2008 01:19 IST
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Embers from the fiery debate over the International Organisation for Standardisation's acceptance of Microsoft's Office Open XML file format as an international standard refuse to die out in India.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has taken strong objection to the fact that despite a "No" to OOXML by a majority of the Bureau of Indian Standardsmembers, the software giant "continued to make representations to the top Indian leadership (read Ministry of Consumer Affairs), pressuring them to change the Indian vote".

The BIS represented India as a participating member of the ISO. Its LITD 15 committee -- of which IIT-Bombay was a part -- was responsible for examining OOXML and deciding on a "No" regarding India's position at the ISO.

India's negative vote could make it difficult for Microsoft to get government business since governments worldwide, including India, are wary of holding digital data in proprietary formats.

Deepak B Phatak, who represented IIT-Bombay along with three other professors, has written an open letter to all BIS members, expressing unhappiness over Microsoft's "accusation" that his institution and the National Informatics Centre (NIC), among others, have an "ODF alliance" bias (ODF stands for Open Document Format).

The OOXML format is backed by Apple, Novell, and closer home by Wipro, Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, and Nasscom. ODF, the other format, is supported by IBM, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Google, and in India, by the Department of Information Technology, National Informatics Centre, CDAC, IIT-Bombay and IIM-Ahmedabad.

States such as Delhi, Kerala and others from the north-east are heavy adopters of ODF file formats which are open and free (excluding maintenance and support).

Pathak insists that there is no reason for any ODF bias since academic institutions have no commercial interests. "... the complaints have painted these organisations and their representatives, including the Indian delegation which attended the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM in Geneva this February), as acting against Indian national interests. This is the most derogatory accusation to any Indian...," he wrote.

The letter adds: "I have a special word of thanks to the officials of Microsoft, some of whom have been personal friends for years... I, of course, still await the action from Microsoft which I have requested, viz., formal withdrawal of all complaints, and a formal apology to my institute."

Microsoft, noted Pathak, has sent him a personal apology which he said is not sufficient.

Microsoft declined to comment on the specific issue of withdrawing the complaint. A spokesperson, however, said: "We would just like to reiterate our respect for both IIT Bombay as an esteemed echelon of learning, and Dr Pathak as one of its the most respected educators. The issue raised with the government about certain members of the BIS committee having a possible bias was an issue we were genuinely concerned about and had fair grounds to believe. It was not targeted at a specific organisation or individual."

ODF proponents oppose OOXML on grounds that " multiple standards " are not good, while Microsoft argues that OOXML is a response to evolving technology formats.

A January 2008 independent study by research and consulting firm Burton Group indicated that although moving to OOXML file formats involves some administrative challenges, the opportunities for improved content management and productivity outweigh the short-term inconvenience of migrating from binary file formats.

Internationally, too, the debate does not appear to have ended. OOXML was approved as an international standard this April. However, there's a two-month period during that countries can appeal against the decision.

The South African Bureau of Standards has already challenged "...the validity of a final vote that we contend was based upon inadequate information, resulting from a poorly conducted BRM (Ballot Resolution Meeting)."

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Leslie D'Monte in Mumbai
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