A curious FAQ put up by an unnamed ISO staffer on MS-OOXML. Question #1 expresses concerns about Fast Tracking a 6,000 page specification, a concern which a large number of NB’s also expressed during the DIS process. Rather than deal honestly with this question, the ISO FAQ says:
The number of pages of a document is not a criterion cited in the JTC 1 Directives for refusal. It should be noted that it is not unusual for IT standards to run to several hundred, or even several thousand pages.
Now certainly there are standards that are several pages long. For example, Microsoft likes to bring up the example of ISO 14496, MPEG 4, at over 4,000 pages in length. But that wasn’t a Fast Track. And as Arnaud Lehors reminded us earlier, MPEG 4 was standardized in 17 parts over 6 years.
So any answer in the FAQ which attempts to consider what is usual and what is unusual must take account of past practice JTC1 Fast Track submissions. That, after all, was the question the FAQ purports to address.
Ecma claims (PowerPoint presentation here) that there have been around 300 Fast Tracked standards since 1987 and Ecma has done around 80% of them. So looking at Ecma Fast Tracks is a reasonable sample. Luckily Ecma has posted all of their standards, from 1991 at least, in a nice table that allows us to examine this question more closely. Since we’re only concerned with JTC1 Fast Tracks, not ISO Fast Tracks or standards that received no approval beyond Ecma, we should look at only those which have ISO/IEC designations. “ISO/IEC” indicates that the standard was approved by JTC1.
So where did things stand on the eve of Microsoft’s submission of OOXML to Ecma?
At that point there had been 187 JTC1 Fast Tracks from Ecma since 1991, with basic descriptive statistics as follows:
- mean = 103 pages
- median = 82 pages
- min = 12 pages
- max = 767 pages
- standard deviation = 102 pages
A histogram of the page lengths looks like this:
So the ISO statement that “it is not unusual for IT standards to run to several hundred, or even several thousand pages” does not seem to ring true in the case of JTC1 Fast Tracks. A good question to ask anyone who says otherwise is, “In the time since JTC1 was founded, how many JTC1 Fast Tracks have been submitted greater than 1,000 pages in length”. Let me know if you get a straight answer.
Let’s look at one more chart. This shows the length of Ecma Fast Tracks over time, from the 28-page Ecma-6 in 1991 to the 6,045 page Ecma-376 in 2006.
Let’s consider the question of usual and unusual again, the question that ISO is trying to inform the public on. Do you see anything unusual in the above chart? Take a few minutes. It is a little tricky to spot at first, but with some study you will see that one of the standards plotted in the above chart is atypical. Keep looking for it. Focus on the center of the chart, let your eyes relax, clear your mind of extraneous thoughts.
If you don’t see it after 10 minutes or so, don’t feel bad. Some people and even whole companies are not capable of seeing this anomaly. As best as I can tell it is a novel cognitive disorder caused by taking money from Microsoft. I call it “Sinclair’s Syndrome” after Upton Sinclair who gave an early description of the condition, writing in 1935: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
To put it in more approachable terms, observe that Ecma-376, OOXML, at 6,045 pages in length, was 58 standard deviations above the mean for Ecma Fast Tracks. Consider also that the average adult American male is 5′ 9″ (175 cm) tall, with a standard deviation of 3″ (8 cm). For a man to be as tall, relative to the average height, as OOXML is to the average Fast Track, he would need to be 20′ 3″ (6.2 m) tall !
For ISO, in a public relations pitch, to blithely suggest that several thousand page Fast Tracks are “not unusual” shows an audacious disregard for the truth and a lack of respect for a public that is looking for ISO to correct its errors, not blow smoke at them in a revisionist attempt to portray the DIS 29500 approval process as normal, acceptable or even legitimate. We should expect better from ISO and we should express disappointment in them when they let us down in our reasonable expectations of honesty. We don’t expect this from Ecma. We don’t expect this from Microsoft. But we should expect this from ISO.