Promises have been made. Assurances have been given. Commitments have been proffered. But far less has been delivered.
Let’s review the record.
We start with the Ecma whitepaper, “Office Open XML Overview” [pdf] which was included in their submission to ISO:
Standardizing the format specification and maintaining it over time ensure that multiple parties can safely rely on it, confident that further evolution will enjoy the checks and balances afforded by an open standards process.
OK. So we were told that if OOXML is standardized its future evolution will be in an open standards process,with checks and balances.
Brian Jones, from a mid 2006 blog post:
There has also been talk though of taking the formats to ISO once they have been approved by Ecma, which would mean that if ISO chooses to adopt the Open XML formats the stewardship of the formats would be theirs. We’ve had a number of governments indicate that they would like the formats to be given to ISO, and it’s likely that after the Ecma approval that will be the next step.
Again, saying that if approval by ISO is tantamount to transferring custody of the format to ISO.
Six months later, Brian wrote:
Some feedback that we got primarily from governments was that they wanted to see these formats not just fully documented, but that the stewardship and maintenance of that documentation should be handed over to an international standards body.
Obviously, a great way to guarantee the long term availability of OpenXML, and the confidence that it won’t change is for an organization like ISO to take ownership of the spec.
OK. Not exactly a signed-in-blood promise, but still a clear, leading indication that the feedback they received from customers was for stewardship and maintenance and even ownership of OOXML to be handed over to ISO.
As the OOXML (DIS 29500) ballot drew nearer to a close, these vague intimations became outright promises. We heard over and over again that we should approve OOXML because that was the only way to ensure that the format would remain open. The first version might be a mess, but if we approve it just this once, all future versions will be developed in openness and transparency.
For example, John Scholes writes of a Microsoft promise made at an National Computing Centre (NCC) file format debate held in London on July 4th:
Would the maintenance of the standard be carried out by Ecma (assuming OpenXML became an ISO/IEC standard) or would it be carried out by JTC1? No question, JTC1. But would the detail be delegated to Ecma? No, it would all be beyond MS’ control in JTC1. Well at this point there was apparently some sotto voce discussion between Stephen and Stijn, followed by a little backtracking, but it came across loud and clear in subsequent discussions in the margins that Stephen and Jerry believed this was for real. MS was handing over control of OpenXML to JTC1 (or trying to).
I participated in this debate as well, and I can confirm that it occurred exactly as John relates. I even asked a follow-up question to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstand what Microsoft was saying. They were adamant. ISO would control OOXML.
Jerry Fishenden, Microsoft’s lead spokesman in the UK wrote two week’s later:
There’s an easy question to consider here: would you prefer the Microsoft file formats to continue to be proprietary and under Microsoft’s exclusive control? Or would you prefer them to be under the control and maintenance of an independent, open standards organisation? I think for most users, customers and partners that’s a pretty easy question to answer: they’d prefer control and maintenance to be independent of Microsoft. And the good news is that the Open XML file formats are already precisely that: currently under the control of Ecma International (as Ecma-376) and, if the current voting process is positive, eventually under the control of ISO/IEC. Many major and significant UK organisations have already made clear that they support this move for Open XML to become an ISO/IEC standard.
The United States vote is one step in the direction to put Open XML under the control of the ISO/IEC standards body.
So Jerry is stating in no uncertain terms that approval of OOXML puts it under ISO control. This statement was repeated on an August 24th update on Microsoft’s “Open XML Community” web site.
(I’ve heard many second-hand reports of additional repetitions of this promise made at NB meetings around the world, in the run up to the Sept. 2nd ballot. If anyone participated in such a meeting and heard such assurances first hand, feel free to add the details as a comment.)
So much for the promises. What makes this story worthy of a blog post is that we now know that, even as these promises were be made to NB’s, at that same time Ecma was planning something that contradicted their public assurances. Ecma’s “Proposal for a Joint Maintenance Plan” [pdf] outlines quite a different vision for how OOXML will be maintained.
A summary of the proposed terms:
- OOXML remains under Ecma (Microsoft) control under Ecma IPR policy.
- Ecma TC45 will accept a liaison from JTC1/SC34 who can participate on maintenance activities and only maintenance activities.
- Similarly, Ecma TC45 documents and email archives will be made available to the liaison (and through him a set of technical experts), but only the documents and emails related to maintenance.
- No mention of voting rights for the liaison or the experts, so I must assume that normal Ecma rules apply — only Ecma members can vote, not liaisons.
- Future revisions of OOXML advance immediately to “Stage 4” of the ISO process, essentially enshrining the idea that future versions will be given fast-track treatment
A critical point to note is that “maintenance” in ISO terms is not the same thing as what the average software engineer thinks of as “maintenance”. The work of producing new features or enhancements is not maintenance. The act of creating OOXML 1.1 or OOXML 2.0 is not maintenance. What is maintenance is the publication of errata documents for OOXML 1.0, a task that must be completed within 3 years.
So what Ecma is offering SC34 is nothing close to what was promised. Ecma is really seeking to transfer to SC34 the responsibility of spending the next 3 years fixing errors in OOXML 1.0, while future versions of OOXML (“technical revisions”) are controlled by Microsoft, in Ecma, in a process without transparency, and as should now be obvious to all, without sufficient quality controls.
This maintenance proposal is on the agenda for the JTC1/SC34 Plenary meeting, in Kyoto on December 8th. I think this one-sided proposal should be firmly opposed.
Consider JTC1 Directives [pdf], 13.13:
If the proposed standard is accepted and published, its maintenance will be handled by JTC 1 and/or a JTC 1 designated maintenance group in accordance with the JTC 1 rules.
JTC1’s practice in such matters is to delegate to the relevant subcommittee, so read “SC34” for “JTC 1” above. So it is within the procedures for SC34 to make this decision. In fact, ownership by the SC is the norm. The clause “and/or a JTC 1 designated maintenance group” is a new addition to the Directives which was added right before the OOXML procedure in ISO began. (Curiously this was the same revision of the Directives that added the escape clause to the Contradiction phase that allowed OOXML to continue despite the numerous unresolved contradictions with existing ISO standards.)
So what does a counter-proposal look like?
First, I think we should defer decision on this until the next SC34 Plenary, presumably in Spring 2008. It is not clear whether or not OOXML will ultimately be approved as an ISO standard, and even if it does, maintenance does not need to be completed for 3 years. So I don’t think we should rush into anything.
The UK has made a proposal to create a new working group (WG) in SC34 dedicated to “Office Information Languages”:
SC34/WG4 would be responsible for languages and resources for the description and processing of digital office documents. The set of such documents includes (but is not limited to) documents describing memoranda, letters, invoices, charts, spreadsheets, presentations, forms and reports.
WG4 would be expected to work on the maintenance of, for example:
- ISO/IEC 26300:2006
- ISO/IEC 29500 (should it exist)
and be responsible for reviewing any future office document formats.
I think this deserves serious consideration. This may be the type of neutral venue — not Ecma and not OASIS — that would be conducive to getting the technical experts together to refactor OOXML and harmonize it with ODF. Even in the likelihood that OOXML ultimately fails in its bid as an ISO standard, the draft could still be referred to a new WG4 for further work. This would also be a way for Microsoft to fulfill their promise to transfer stewardship, control and ownership of OOXML over to ISO, a promise made they made publicly and repeatedly.