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Within the next 24-hours, Microsoft will submit to JTC1 a set of proposals for addressing the 3,522 comments that accompanied OOXML’s failed ballot last September. We’ll no doubt hear a lot of yip-yip-yahooing on their end. Expect a major media campaign. I don’t want to take away the surprise, but I’m hearing that journalists are being flown into Redmond next week from around the world for briefings on OOXML. So, for their benefit, and yours, let’s review where we are in the JTC1 process.

What has happened so far?

OASIS OpenDocument Format (ODF) is the current ISO standard (IS 26300:2006) for XML-based word processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents. By using an open standard format like ODF, consumers avoid vendor lock-in and are able to have a choice of suppliers. ODF is widely supported by vendors, in both commercially-available and open-source software, and is seeing strong adoption world wide.

In early 2007 the European Computer Manufacturer’s Association (Ecma), after a superficial review clothed in secrecy, submitted the Microsoft-authored document format specification, Office Open XML (OOXML), to ISO/IEC JTC1 for approval as an International Standard. This provocative submission occurred only three months after JTC1 published OpenDocument Format (ODF) as a unanimously approved International Standard.

OOXML has been widely criticized as flawed standard, having been designed with only a single vendor’s objectives in mind and designed to work fully only with that vendor’s products. Also, in its rush to catch up with ODF, OOXML was submitted to JTC1 in an immature state, hastily written and insufficiently reviewed. At the time it was approved by Ecma, there were zero commercially available implementations of OOXML. The only support was in the beta version of Office 2007.

In a preliminary 30-day “contradiction period”, JTC1 member bodies were invited to raise objections if they believed that the OOXML submission contradicted existing ISO or IEC standards. Twenty countries responded in this period, most of them raising concerns over OOXML. Several NB’s raised objections to the extreme length of the proposal (over 6,000 pages) and raised IP concerns. JTC1 administrators effectively ignored all of these objections and proceeded to a 5-month ballot.

On September 2nd, 2007, after a 5-month review period by ISO/IEC JTC1 national bodies (NB’s), the ballot to approve DIS 29500 Office Open XML (OOXML) failed, not reaching the required 2/3 approval by JTC1 P-members. This ballot was tainted by many documented irregularities. Over 3,500 comments were submitted by NB’s with this ballot, documenting specific errors, ambiguities and omissions in the OOXML proposal.

What is next for OOXML?

JTC1 procedures allow a proposer of a failed standard the opportunity to respond to the ballot comments submitted, in hopes of persuading members to change their vote from disapproval to approval.

This procedure occurs in several steps. In the first step, the formal proposer of the standard, Ecma in this case, writes a Proposed Disposition of Comments report, in which they recommend their proposed resolutions for each comment from the September 2nd ballot. This is the document that is due on January 14th.

We’ve seen draft versions of these proposals resolutions, but they were provided in a rough form, impossible to review, as 3,000+ separate PDF files, amounting to over 5,000 pages, ordered alphabetically by the country that made the underlying technical comment. This is not exactly a convenient arrangement for seeing, for example, all comments related to spreadsheet date serial numbers, or for doing any other topical review. So it will be good to finally have Ecma’s full Proposed Disposition of Comments report, which presumably will be in a more usable format.

Note that the Ecma submission on January 14th will be non-binding, merely a set of proposals. Ecma does not have the power to change a single line in OOXML, since the proposed standard is under JTC1 control. Ecma can propose solutions to comments, as can JTC1 members themselves, as they did in in great numbers in the proposals that accompanied ballot comments on September 2nd. No changes are actually made until approved by the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM). This fact should be kept in mind as Ecma reviews with some NB’s a draft of their Proposed Disposition of Comments Report. This is just a proposal at this stage.

What about the BRM?

The BRM, or Ballot Resolution Meeting, will occur February 25th-29th in Geneva. All NB’s who voted on the September 2nd ballot are able to attend, and approximately 35 NB’s are planning on sending delegates, with attendance expected to fill the hall to capacity, 120 people. Ecma can attend, but they cannot vote.

The BRM, preferably by consensus, though formal votes are also possible, will agree on a set of changes to the text of OOXML. Proposals for changes may come from Ecma’s Proposed Disposition of Comments report, as well as from NB ballot comments. Resolutions may be debated, amended, substituted, approved, rejected, etc., according to a vote of the meeting. Or at least that’s my understanding. The actual documented BRM process in JTC1 Directives is entirely inadequate, with a lack of detail that is better suited to the by-laws of a Ladies Over-60 Bowling League than it is to ISO. The Convenor of the BRM, Alex Brown has the unenviable task of consulting bird entrails or performing whatever other divinations are required to turn JTC1’s vague scratchings into a working meeting. We wish him luck !

At the adjournment of the BRM we will have be an agreed-upon set of editing instructions for the Ecma Project Editor to apply to OOXML. Only changes approved by the BRM may be made to the standard. Note that the BRM does not indicate approval or disapproval of the OOXML standard itself. Its purpose, its technical role, is merely to make changes to the text of the standard.

What occurs after the BRM?

After the BRM adjourns (February 29th) there will be a 30-day “reconsideration” period in which those NB’s who voted on the September 2nd ballot will be able to change their vote. They can change their vote in any direction, from approval to disapproval, approval to abstention, abstention to approval, abstention to disapproval, disapproval to approval, or disapproval to abstention.

Note that the criteria for the vote is the same as on September 2nd – Should DIS 29500 Office Open XML be approved as an International Standard? It is not a vote on the BRM, nor is it a vote on Ecma’s Proposed Disposition of Comments. The question on February 29th is the same question as Sept 2nd — Is the DIS 29500 proposal acceptable?

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Queen Elizabeth 2008/01/13, 17:33

    “ODF is widely supported by vendors”–yes, but with the following caveats, which may be dealbreakers for many users:
    – NO office suite supports ODF perfectly.
    – Of the four suites that supposedly support it well, three are essentially badge-engineered. They’re same! (OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and NeoOffice.)
    – Most of the remaining programs that “support” ODF do so because it’s trivial to do so (e.g., search only has to index, not render, edit, or output.)

  • Chris Ward 2008/01/14, 06:03

    “We wish him luck”, as in “We wish Serenity Systems luck in marketing and developing OS/2 eComStation, but we think its successor for all commercial purposes is Linux” ?

    Ring-side seats at the BRM would sell for a good price!

  • Mr. Nobody 2008/01/14, 14:10

    If they’re pulling the too small discussion hall trick again, I hope that those critical of their manipulations show up extra early.

    Then it could backfire if THEIR people get turned away because the meeting is over-capacity.

    OTOH, I bet they’d try and turn the blame around on that one, as if you chose the small hall…

  • Anonymous 2008/01/14, 14:12

    >NO office suite supports ODF perfectly.

    The same is even more true for OOXML…Microsoft office does not perfectly support the OOXML version submitted to ECMA. Even worse, Microsoft, that by all means should know their own format, has been unable to produce OOXML support for MAC. This speaks volumes about how broken OOXML is.

    >Of the four suites that supposedly support it well, three are essentially badge-engineered. They’re same! (OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and NeoOffice.)

    How would that matter? Two independant Office suits that support ODF is more than one, right? The number of supporting suits are most certainly not changed by that one of them has been forked into three suits.

    Also please compare this to Microsoft that has been unable to get even partial support for OOXML on Mac.

    >Most of the remaining programs that “support” ODF do so because it’s trivial to do so (e.g., search only has to index, not render, edit, or output.)

    Sure that you are not talking about those other programs that Microsoft claim “support” OOXML , but that in reality only support limited functionality?

    (and do so by using Microsoft dll:s that parse the data)

  • Anonymous 2008/01/14, 16:02

    Now that Microsoft has stated that it, not JTC1 or ECMA, will maintain OOXML, how can it still be considered for a standard? If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, won’t every company want to have their product become an ISO standard as well? How could ISO say no after accepting OOXML? If ISO standards do not ensure a level playing field, why have them at all? If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, doesn’t that make all ISO standards suspect? How can ISO expect me to base my product on it’s standard when that standard is maintained by my direct competitor? If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, then it is time to start a new international standards organization that cannot be bought or manipulated like the ISO and the ISO should simply be pushed aside as a complete failure.

  • Rob 2008/01/14, 22:30

    @Queen, CSS2 has been around for 10 years and we’re just now seeing near complete implementations in Firefox and Opera, and still waiting on Internet Explorer. So I think the level of support for ODF, only 18 months after ISO approval, and considering the relative complexity, is nothing short of outstanding.

    @Nobody, they are claiming a room limitation of 120. But once the potential size of the meeting increased past 20 or so people, it ceases to be a “meeting” and starts to become more like a parliamentary body. At that point it is less about individual expertise and more about representation and rules of order, IMHO. So long as every country that wants to attend can send a delegation, I have no complaints about the 120 person limit. It is not like a BRM of 200 or 500 people would be any more or less effective.

    @Anonymous, you make some good points. Creating an ISO Standard is a long, rigorous, technically-demanding process. Or at least that is the way it used to be. But now we have mechanisms that allow fast track conversions of existing standards from other standards bodies. Abuse of fast track is what this about. I don’t think we need to throw out ISO, but we certainly need to reform JTC1’s fast track procedures.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/15, 13:39

    @Anonymous: Office for Mac 2008 fully supports OOXML. Interestingly Office for Mac and Office for Windows share very little code, so there are effectively two separate office suites supporting OOXML, they just happen to come from the same vendor.

  • Mr. Nobody 2008/01/15, 17:04

    Rob, I guess what I was asking was if we know whether or not “excess” people will get turned away? I mean, it would be nice to see them address the potential issue now rather than turn people away, later…

    Isn’t there any way to avoid the trouble ahead of time?

  • Rob 2008/01/15, 18:31

    @nobody,

    All BRM participants will need to be on a NB delegation, and NB’s are required to submit the names of the delegates well in advance of the meeting. For example, in the US we know that we are allowed to have 6 delegates, and these will be chosen later this week. That said, we probably have 10 people on our committee who would like to attend. So in practice the “excess” people are turned away at this point rather than in Geneva.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/16, 14:22

    http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9057439&intsrc=hm_list

    Looks like Microsoft may start pushing OOXML as a “security fix” of sorts?

    Unless there’s an Excel 2007 format that doesn’t use OOXML or something.

  • zbog 2008/01/16, 17:44

    @Queen elizabeth:
    You forgot KOffice (KDE e.V)and GnomeOffice.
    KOffice are the inventors of ODF – you can not leave them out.
    Now most documents I write are in ODF format.

  • Victor 2008/01/17, 11:57

    Actually MS Office 2008 is particularly damning for Microsoft. Yes, it’s very true that “Office for Mac and Office for Windows share very little code”, yet this “very little code” includes OOXML-related code. Think about it: they redid UI code, layout code, macrosystem code, yet they decided that to have separate OOXML parser will be too much work!

    How does this fact reflects on OOXML ? Besides the fact that they can not be considered “independent” as far as OOXML is involved they also decided to forgo standards XML-tools for the platform (Mac supports XML just fine – but not the kind used in OOXML) and went with foreign objects injected in otherwise native application.

  • rsandu2007 2008/01/20, 00:54

    Hello, Rob,

    Thanks a lot for this presentation, that explains very well where we are and what to do/expect next.

    For raising awareness among the Romanian users on the OOXML matter, I’ve translated your post, 100%, in Romanian and published for them at http://rsandu.myblog.ro/ .

    According to one post made by Mr. Dan Matei, the president of CT210 comitee of ASRO (Romanian NB), ASRO won’t send a delegation to Geneva. Given the big financial interests of the Microsoft partners in Romania, I have no naive ilussion that Romania will change its YES vote for OOXML – despite the fact a big scandal has grown up…

    Regards,
    Răzvan

  • zbog 2008/01/21, 15:30

    Apperently, Răzvan forgot to make a proper link to his site
    rsandu.myblog.ro
    in the comment

  • Jay, writer MemberSpeed.com 2008/01/23, 08:53

    Isn’t a standard format going to make the consumer’s choice wider as they can choose any software they fancy without worrying about the support? I hope that developments such as this will continue on because at the end of the day the winners will be the consumers.

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