ISO process slammed

SA, Venezuela, India and Brazil have successfully stalled the publication of Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) format by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

This move has generated mixed reactions from international and local XML experts.

The ISO received the 75% majority required to have OOXML standardised in April; however, it has since been dogged by controversy. According to a document circulated to standards bodies involved in the voting process, the majority of votes opposing the ratification of the standard were emerging market participants.

The four emerging nation's appeal was based on the dissatisfaction within the maturity of the format and the ratification process in general.

No goodwill

According to Jon Bosak, the Sun Microsystems engineer who organised and led the working group that created XML, standards development has become an arena for market dominance.

"The root of the problem is clearly that the whole ISO process was designed for a time when technical experts were people of goodwill who were primarily interested in working together to find the best technical solution. Sadly, that time is past."

He says there are still questions around whether the "obvious ambiguities and contradictions" in the joint technical committee of the ISO (JTC1) directives are to blame or whether fast-tracking a standard as complex as OOXML is at fault.

"At the moment, I'm inclined to think it's more the latter."

No appetite for controversy

<B>OOXML ratification timeline</B>
August 2007: Microsoft's initial request to have Open XML fast-tracked to standardisation is rejected.

2 April 2008: In a second fast-track attempt, OOXML is ratified through the fast-track process by the International Organisation of Standardisation. Emerging market leaders, China, Brazil, India and SA, who were among those who voted against the recognition of Microsoft's Office OOXML, voice heavy criticism.

April 2008: Throughout the month, ISO processes are criticised and several irregularities in national standards bodies are revealed. Angry protests in Norway and Germany, where technical committees were overridden in the voting process. France also reports irregularities. Countries across the world call for a revision of the ISO standardisation process.

18 April 2008: Open Document Format (ODF) is approved by the South African Bureau of Standards as a national standard. Government supports the move. Open source groups in SA challenge Microsoft to support ODF and drop OOXML.

22 May 2008: Microsoft announces it will support ODF among several other document standards. Industry greets the announcement with optimistic scepticism.

End May/begin June: SA becomes the first country to appeal the ratification of OOXML. SA is challenging the validity of the process used to fast-track the ratification of Microsoft's open document format, Open XML (OOXML). Venezuela, India and Brazil join in the appeal process.

Rob Weir, co-chairman of the OASIS Open Document Format (ODF) technical committee, says the blatant committee backing around the world to have the standard ratified was disconcerting. He says in several countries, countries voted yes at the last minute and were "heard of no more. It makes a mockery of the system."

However, he is hopeful the current process will follow procedure. "I don't think there is much appetite for a repetition of the OOXML fiasco. So I'd expect to see changes. It remains to be seen whether we see an entire overhaul of JTC1, or whether we will see slower, deliberate, targeted reform of JTC1 procedures, especially in the area of fast-track processing."

However, Patrick Durusau, co-editor of ISO ODF and OASIS ODF, says halting OOXML publication is good for no one. "Some 61 countries voted in favour of OOXML and only four have lodged appeals. With all due deference to the concerns of the four appellants, consensus does not mean that the majority should be held hostage by a determined minority."

He says with the appeal process holding back the publication, no work can be done on making mappings to, or repairs of, OOXML. The appeal could halt the publication of open XML by up to eight months, he says. "Allowing a minority of members to hold the majority hostage is a bad idea.

"Rather than appealing, I would urge SA and others to put the standard on the JTC1 plenary agenda; simply resolve the appeal as a whole committee," he says.

Durusau believes allowing the publication of the standards can enrich future discussions of ODF and other markup formats.

Related stories:

Emerging markets back SA
SA appeals ISO's decision
Cautious optimism for MS decision
Emerging markets reject OOXML
ODF is SA's national standard
MS defends interoperability

See also