Monday, September 03, 2007

How much is that standard in the window, the one with the lovely tale?

Everytime I settle down to write about the stack - some other bit of news comes and disturbs my peace. Maybe Keen is right and we should just leave it to the experts, however judging by what is happening with OOXML, maybe we shouldn't.

So for those of you who don't know, OOXML is open office XML an alternative to ODF (the open document format). Recently OOXML has been trying to become an ISO standard.

ISO is the International Organisation for Standardisation. It describes itself as -

"a bridging organization in which a consensus can be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society, such as the needs of stakeholder groups like consumers and users."

So how is the OOXML going?

Well, apparently there are a number of issues with OOXML. According to Stephen Walli -

"Microsoft Office DOESN'T ACCEPT WELL FORMED OOXML documents not produced by Microsoft Office"


"A standard that can't be implemented is WORSE THAN USELESS. It really demonstrates that this standard they rammed through ECMA is nothing more than a vendor's product specification."

Fairly hard hitting words there, but I can understand the sentiment.

A standard is something which must be open and free to use. As the NZ Standards Council commented -

"Significant concern was expressed about proprietary content that is embedded in the document. Microsoft made commitments not to sue for breach of patent. However, there was still general concern about the protection these commitments offered."

Well if it doesn't work and contains proprietary content, it doesn't sound like a good standard by my book.

So how is consensus being reached that meets the broader needs of society and consumers?

According to Computer World -

"Microsoft Corp. 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."

... whoops, but there is more ...

Groklaw says there has been more pressure by Microsoft in Denmark and there are rumours about irregularities in Norway and Hungary. This doesn't seem to be the sort of consensus I'd imagine.

ZDNET further informs us that Georg Greve, Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) president, said -

unprecedented numbers of Microsoft partner companies from several countries have joined standards organisations and have voted to approve the Office Open XML (OOXML) document format as an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard.

Apparently this has happened in Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the US.

Alarm bells are ringing .... "Membership of the Swiss body saw a surprising growth before the vote, while in Sweden a very similar thing happened — suddenly the room was overcrowded with Microsoft partners" Greve told

As ZDNET points out there was "20 new companies, overwhelmingly Microsoft partners, joining the committee voting on ISO certification within days of the final vote"

Hmmm, this must some form of meeting the broader needs of society and consumers that I'm not familiar with.

So why the pressure to get OOXML accepted? Why not just adopt ODF? Well as Tom Robertson, General Manager of Interoperability and Standards for Microsoft says it's all a "proxy for product competition in the marketplace".

Er? Sorry, I'm a bit of a luddite here .... what does he actually mean?

A quick look at Ben Langhinrichs' data shows that OOXML is losing badly in this marketplace with about 1% market share, and at least ODF is already an ISO standard, ISO/IEC 26300.

So what is the point of OOXML? ODF may not be perfect, but surely supporting the creation of a decent single standard as Bob Sutor suggests is better than muddying the waters?

Governments tend to adopt ISO standards and this is starting to happen with ODF. If it spreads into business, which it surely would, then this could start to undermine the dominant position of MS Office. It could level the playing field - ah, now I think I understand Robert. Surely that's the point of OOXML, to reduce the threat of ODF to the marketplace?

There is a lot of blogging out there about this issue (something which Mr Keen would no doubt disapprove of), however it is good this whole issue is being brought to light.

So who are the winners and loser? Well, as a member of society, all I can see is confusion being created by OOXML. However, the real loser in this could be ISO's reputation itself.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Well I hope that ISO conducts a full and public review into this sorry tale, particularly these stories of gerrymandering. As an authoritative body it needs to set and to be seen to set the highest standards of conduct.

"How much is that standard in the window, the one with the lovely ..... it's not for sale sign."