Thursday, August 30, 2007

OOXML and the prostitution of an international standardisation process

According to Wikipedia,

International standards is one way of overcoming technical barriers in international commerce caused by differences among technical regulations and standards developed independently and separately by each nation, national standards organisation, or company. Technical barriers arise when different groups come together, each with a large user base, doing some well established thing that between them is mutually incompatible. Establishing international standards is one way of preventing or overcoming this problem
and following its own website we learn that the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) is “a network of the national standards institutes of 155 countries, on the basis of one member per country, with a Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, that coordinates the system”, which seeks to fulfils the ideal of a technical barriers’ free world. Due to the highly technical nature of ISO’s work, an ISO certification is understood to guarantee that a process or product satisfies the most stringent quality requirements (although ISO’s aim is to eliminate technical barriers, for many it has become a quality assurance label). File formats are not an exception and since the creation of the Open Document Format (caveat with the link: is a 706 pages PDF) by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in May 2005 and its subsequent approval by the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1) in November 2006 as the ISO/IEC 26300:2006, Microsoft has looked for the way to get its own version of Open Office XML format recognized as an international standard (it is to note that the original name of ODF was also Open Office XML and its development was started by OASIS in 2002, but its name was changed to Open Document Format when the European Union suggested to Microsoft and OASIS to initiate a process of standardisation of their Open Office formats using the phrase Open Document Format).The problem is that once you put Microsoft into the game things get complicated, because it is known the propensity of Microsoft to finance “independent” studies that coincidentally tend to find that Microsoft products are the best, including this standard, and it is also known that some people or groups would oppose anything created by or even with the smell of the Redmond company. And it seems that this time they are right.

One of the issues with the Microsoft proposed Open Office XML Standard is its complexity (6,000 pages), which does not compare well with the 600 pages of the Open Document Format that, in addition, is already and international standard. Another even more interesting issue with the OOXML is that, although is open from the copyright point of view, it seems to incorporate a number of procedures for which Microsoft has patents (to which users would have a licence to use freely unless they decide to use it in a way different that the established one…is that freedom?)

In its favour is normally mentioned that the standard has been already approved by Ecma International, but those using that information as supportive to the standard forget to mention that the European Computer Manufacturers Association changed its name to Ecma International (with Ecma being now a name without further meaning) when it became a private association of which Microsoft is member, and that it approved the OOXML as standards through its technical committee 45, which is co-chaired by Mr J. Paoli and Mrs. I. Valet-Harper, both employees of Microsoft. A further blow to Microsoft’s standardisation drive was given by the US Department of Defence that made reference to the potential problems associated with the OOXML standard, as

  1. Binary information in the standard that would lead to security concerns
  2. The referencing of unexplained backward compatibility modes that might pose a problem for third party implementers
  3. The use of proprietary file formats within the open standard appear to cause potential intellectual property ownership concerns

Notwithstanding those concerns, there seem to be national standardisation institutions that are willing to give the green light to the OOXML, especially if there are substantial piles of “green bills” on (or under) the table for those voting.

The blogosphere is red-hot about the Swedish Standards Institute (SIS) vote on the OOXML approval (what they are actually voting is what would be the country’s vote in ISO) and what entitles for both Microsoft and the Swedish. It appears that Microsoft was going to loose the vote when suddenly a group of companies that had never shown any concerns about the standards (before voting these type of things there are months of analysis of the format) or actually shown up at all, decided to show up, pay the little less than U$S2,500 membership fee and vote in favour of the standardisation of the Microsoft’s OOXML. As you may have already imagined, most of these suddenly-concerned companies are Microsoft partners, and in order to avoid any accusation of resembling Oliver Stone here you have the list of those joining at the last moment:

  • Camako Data AB (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Connecta AB (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Cornerstone Sweden AB (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Cybernetics (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Emric AB,
  • Exor AB (Microsoft Certified Partner),
  • Fishbone Systems AB (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Formpipe Software (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • FS System AB,
  • Google (which joined at last moment to vote against the standardisation and it has been heavily involved in the process at global scale),
  • HP (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • IBizkit AB (Microsoft Certified Partner),
  • IDE N├Ątverkskonsulterna (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • IT-Vision AB, Know IT (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Modul1 (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Nordic Station AB (Microsoft Certified Partner),
  • ReadSoft AB (Microsoft Certified Partner),
  • Sogeti (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • Solid Park AB (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner),
  • SourceTech AB,
  • Strand Interconnect AB (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner) and
  • TietoEnator (Microsoft Gold Certified Partner).

The result, as expected, was 25 yes, 6 no and 3 abstentions. Well, information technology and software came to revolutionize and change everything, even the form and place where is conducted the oldest profession in the world…

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