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The Final OOXML Update: Part I

I have not written a blog post on OOXML for well over a year now. My last post on this topic was on August 17th, 2008 and covered the contentious appeals process which followed the DIS 29500 Fast Track ballot. So I hope that one more post, 14 months later, will not seem excessive to my critics. There is too much good stuff going on with ODF these days, with ODF 1.2 coming soon, inter-vendor work at plugfests, the ODF Toolkit, and continual national adoption, for me to waste much time on OOXML. “Let the dead bury their own dead” is my attitude here. That said, I have received several requests for an update on OOXML, so I will oblige with some quick observations in what (I hope) is my final update on this sad chapter in standardization.

I’ll structure this update over a handful of posts, each one looking at a single topic. In this post I’ll cover the tight control Microsoft maintains over the OOXML standard, despite their earlier assertions to the contrary.


From the beginning of the Fast Track procedure Microsoft encouraged NBs to approve OOXML with the promise that their approval of the specification would guarantee that it would be handed over to the “global community” for maintenance. Vote against the standard — because it was obviously flawed — and you would lose this unique opportunity to transfer control from proprietary interests at Microsoft to the benevolent and international meritocracy of ISO. This was one of the main “selling points” for OOXML and what Microsoft repeatedly sold.

For example, here was Jerry Fishenden, Microsoft’s National Technology Office in the UK:

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

Or Microsoft’s Jason Matusow:

I still hear patently untrue claims that MS controls Open XML – this wasn’t true following the adoption of Ecma 376, and is now permanently a moot argument.

Microsoft Australia said:

This is encouraging and should be a reminder to all that the Open XML standard will be controlled by the international community not by any commercial business or other organisation – including Microsoft.

Chris Capossela , Microsoft Senior VP said it thus:

If Open XML is approved as an ISO/IEC standard, the story would not end there – like any other standard, maintenance affords the opportunity for continually updating and improving the standard. In this case, the global community would be in control of the evolution of this standard going forward – a fitting result given that this format will be widely used around the world for years to come.
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Now, the global community has the opportunity to take control of the future of the specification by ratifying Ecma 376 as an ISO/IEC standard. We know that it will be in good hands when this happens based on the tremendous work and improvements that have been made to the specification during the ISO/IEC process over the past 14 months. We are committed to the healthy maintenance of the standard once ratification takes place so that it will continue to be useful and relevant to the rapidly growing number of implementers and users around the world.

(If you watched the video linked to from the letter, you will hear Chris say that Microsoft “has transferred stewardship of the file formats to the global community”.)

Well, that was what was promised. But how did it turn out in reality?

Let’s take a look at who actually attends meetings of SC34/WG4, the technical committee that should have made the question of OOXML control “moot” and puts it “under the control of ISO/IEC”.

If you look at the attendance records, summarized in the following table, you will find that the committee regulars consist primarily of Microsoft employees. In many of the meetings, Microsoft employees outnumber all other attendees combined. And then there is the “Microsoft Co-Prosperity Sphere”, the Microsoft consultants, Microsoft business partners and Microsoft-funded research institution, which further contribute to Microsoft’s effective domination of the meetings.

Person Employer NB 4/16 4/30 5/14 5/28 6/11 6/22 7/16 7/30
Makoto Murata Consultant Japan 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Doug Mahugh Microsoft Ecma 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Shawn Villaron Microsoft Ecma 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Dave Welsh Microsoft US 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Jirka Kosek Consultant Czech Rep 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Rex Jaeshcke Microsoft Consultant Ecma 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Gareth Horton Data Watch UK 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Jesper Lund Stocholm Ciber Denmark 1 1 1 1 1 1
Isabelle Valet-Harper Microsoft Ecma 1 1 1 1 1 1
Mohamed Zergaoui Innovimax France 1 1 1 1 1 1
Mario Wendt Microsoft Germany 1 1 1 1 1 1
Alex Brown Griffin Brown Digital Publishing UK 1 1 1 1 1 1
Florian Reuter Novell Ecma 1 1 1 1 1
Jaeho Lee University of Seoul Korea 1 1 1 1
Caroline Arms Library of Congress Ecma 1 1 1
Francis Cave Francis Cave Digital Publishing UK 1 1 1
Rick Jelliffe Consultant Unauthorized 1 1 1
Nasser Kettani Microsoft Côte d’Ivoire 1 1
Pia Lange Dansk Standard Denmark 1 1
Kimmo Bergius Microsoft Finland 1 1
Juha Vartiainen Finnish Standards Finland 1
Jean Paoli Microsoft Ecma 1
Sam Oh Sungkyunkwan University Korea 1
Klaus Peter Eckert Fraunhofer Fokus Germany 1
Jung-Jin Yang Catholic University of Korea Korea 1
Keld Simonsen RAP Norway 1
Amruta Gulinakar Microsoft Ecma 1

So is this really handing over control? Is it really independent? And is it really global?

Let’s look at it in graphical form. In this chart I tally up the participation from each entity (company, organization or unaffiliated individual) attending WG4 meetings. This takes account of all 8 published meeting minutes for WG4. It shows the total participation over those meetings. So if a company sent 8 people to one meeting, this is scored the same as if they sent 1 person to each of 8 meetings. It is the overall participation for an entity that is measured relative to the total participation of all entities at the meetings. Note also that the “Microsoft” tally is of Microsoft employees only. The rest of the Microsoft Co-Prosperity, for purposes of this chart I am all counting as “independent” entities. So this picture is the most complimentary view possible of the degree of concentration in WG4. Obviously, Microsoft’s control is much higher if we take account of these other inter-entity obligations.

I suppose this is “global” in a sense, in the same way one could stage an “International Food Festival” and then have McDonalds show up and contribute a Big Mac from the U.S., a Big Mac from Germany, a Big Mac from the Ivory Coast, a Big Mac from Finland and another Big Mac from Brazil and so on. Certainly, you could claim this was “international”, but you would be laughed right out of the festival if you did.

By way of comparison, here it the same analysis, plotted on the same scale, for the most recent 8 meetings of the OASIS ODF TC. As you can see it is much flatter. No company has more than 20% or so of the participation, and no two companies combined have control of the TC.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are certainly some independent people in WG4 and I would not want anyone to denigrate their efforts. They are not all Microsoft employees, consultants, business partners and research institutions that Microsoft is funding. But they are mostly so. Attend any OOXML meeting and look to your right, look to your left, and most likely one is a Microsoft employee and another is economically tightly tied to Microsoft.

Of course, I would not expect that Microsoft would be absent from this work either. After all, they authored the specification and have most of the relevant technical experts. But a glance over the attendance records shows that they are not gracing the committee with their file format gurus. Instead they are stuffing it with “program managers” and “technology directors” and other assorted non-experts. The problem appears to be that their file format experts are all cursed with American residency and so have little value in stuffing a committee that has one-country/one-vote rules. Thus the spectacle of a room filled with Microsoft employees wrapped in different colored flags.

So I don’t think one can truthfully say (in Jason’s words) that it is “patently untrue” that Microsoft controls OOXML. Or that OOXML “control and maintenance” is “independent of Microsoft” as Jerry promised it would be, or that the “global community would be in control” as Chris said. I don’t think those are accurate statements, given the evidence. I think the results fall far short of what was promised back when Microsoft were trying to secure a positive vote in ISO.

And this is not just me complaining. At the recent SC34 Plenary meeting in Seattle, delegates from several NBs approached me, voicing concerns at the domination Microsoft was asserting over the committee. (Perhaps this explains the substantial number of people who attended only one WG4 meeting and then never returned?) There is no easy solution here. Remember, we are dealing with a company that has demonstrated that it is willing to spend millions of dollars to protect its Office monopoly franchise from any pro-competition standards initiative.

The Former ISO Secretary-General, when interviewed about the OOXML farce, was asked about claims of Microsoft domination and admitted that he was powerless to stop this:

Companies have no direct vote on the International Standards, which are adopted according to voting by national member bodies, on the basis of one vote per country… As a stakeholder in the process, Microsoft and other interests certainly participated in the process to establish national positions. ISO and IEC national members are fully responsible for the way national votes are formed and relevant national interests consulted.

Evidently there is no one capable of fixing this. ISO says that domination by a single corporation is not their responsibility, because only NBs vote and each NB determines its own participation rules. But individual NBs also don’t see a problem, because any single one of them only has one Microsoft employee at the meeting. So the NB itself is not necessary stuffed (although that does happens occasionally as well). So by placing Microsoft employees in many NB delegations and putting the overflow into the Ecma delegation, Microsoft can still dominate the ISO committee and not trigger a rule violation in ISO or in any NB.

This is essentially how Microsoft hacked ISO. Now that the flaw has been demonstrated, any large international corporation with sufficient funds and interest can exploit it as well. So long as the rules remain as they are, ISO is vulnerable. ISO defends this criticism by pointing out what good work they’ve done in the past, and how they rarely have problems of this kind before. But this shows little appreciation for the nature of the problem which have been demonstrated. It is like arguing that a newly discovered (though long latent) security flaw in an operating system is insignificant because you’ve never had an attack before now. Of course, this misses the point entirely. Once the vulnerability is known and publicly exploited, you’re living on borrowed time until you can secure the system. Today ISO is living on borrowed time and is very close to becoming a Microsoft-infested zombie committee.


That is all for Part I of this update. In the next Part I’ll look at the maintenance of OOXML, and the most peculiar way in which the Microsoft-dominated committee is putting aside BRM decisions and making other breaking changes to the specification, in an bizarre attempt to make ISO OOXML conform to to the Microsoft Office standard.

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{ 18 comments… add one }

  • Doug Mahugh 2009/10/01, 09:47

    Rob, what ever happened to the concept of standardizing Open Formula? You've blogged quite a lot about the importance of ODF formula interoperability over the last year, but on Monday's ODF TC call you encouraged everyone to focus on everything *except* Open Formula for the next draft (i.e., the other two parts). Why is formula interoperability such a hot topic on your blog, but your lowest priority in the actual TC work? And when you keep saying "ODF 1.2 is coming soon," it seems you mean "another version of ODF with no formula standard is coming soon," correct? After all, as you said on the call, your plan is for the public review version of ODF 1.2 to not include Open Formula.

    It would be great to see IBM and Sun participate more in IS29500 maintenance, by the way. I think observers could get a clearer sense of how the big vendors are conducting themselves across document format standards activities if they could see every large vendor's track record in all the relevant groups.

  • Rob 2009/10/01, 11:21

    @Doug,

    I can see how this could be confusing. Since others might also misinterpret what I said, I've answered your question over on the ODF TC's list. Let me know if you have a better idea for how to stage the work. But those are the constraints as I see them. Microsoft is actively helping on the OpenFormula work, and certainly I appreciate that help. I don't think you need to change your priorities there. But over the next few weeks I personally will be emphasizing the remaining Part I defects, for the reasons I mention.

  • Wouter van Vugt 2009/10/01, 11:34

    I consider it a strange stance to say Microsoft 'hacked' ISO, because of lacking participation of others. That is not Microsofts fault at all. It is of course a fact that just about no one cares about all this chatter. Microsoft obviously does, but that is to be expected and hardly a 'fault' on their side.
    Perhaps you should focus on how to motivate people to join up.

  • Rob 2009/10/01, 12:01

    @Wouter, Your logic is faulty.

    Judge: You are accused of larceny. How do you plead?

    Defendant: Your Honor, the only reason you are accusing me is because all of these innocent people have not committed larceny. If they would just go out and steal something, then you would not be able to find fault with me. So it is entirely their fault that I stand here accused.

    Microsoft clearly stated that they were handing over control to an independent committee and then, once they secured their desired ballot approval, they proceeded to stuff that committee. No other company, not a single one, has more than one employee in WG4. Microsoft has 10.

    To put it into perspective, would you like to guess how many employees IBM has in SC34 working on ODF maintenance? One (me). Even if we prioritized OOXML as equal in importance with ODF (which we don't) that would suggesting putting only one person in WG4. That hardly gives balance, does it? We would need to add 10 people, right? But you do not solve a committee domination problem by asking other companies to stuff the committee as well.

    All it takes is one technically competent person to get the job done. If you are sending 10 people, few of them with expertise in the subject matter, then are you really helping the committee? The feedback I received in Seattle, from the delegations that approached me, was a resounding "No".

  • Doug Maugh 2009/10/01, 15:48

    Thanks for the clarification of your thinking on ODF 1.2, Rob. Open Formula happens to be the only aspect of 1.2 that I've heard people asking us to support, so getting that in final form feels like a priority to me.

    I think the comparisons between OASIS and SC34 here are a little misleading. The member bodies votes on the work WG4 does, and not WG4 itself. And even if we were to take a vote, Ecma (the delegation I'm on) wouldn't get a vote because we are a non-voting liaison member. In OASIS, the TC members vote on approval of committee drafts and other matters, but in SC34 the WG simply prepares a set of proposed changes and then the member bodies vote on them. FWIW, in my experience the majority of those member bodies have both IBM and Microsoft representatives on their technical committees.

    It's interesting that you've mentioned the Seattle meeting a couple of times above, but I see upon closer inspection that you didn't actually use the attendance numbers from that meeting in your analysis. You also didn't include the numbers from the WG4 meeting in Prague, thus leaving out the two largest and most diverse WG4 meetings of recent months. What was the thinking behind the particular date range you used?

  • Rob 2009/10/01, 17:45

    @Doug, I used whatever minutes have been posted. I didn't see attendance reported for the Seattle/WG4 meetings, or indeed for several recent WG4 meetings. Have they dispensed with publishing meeting minutes? If you can point me to meeting minutes for meetings I've missed, I'd be happy to update the data.

    Obviously SC34 votes on the drafts that are presented to it by the WG. So if the WG is dominated by a single company, then the composition of SC34 is less important. What is the point of being the judge in the International Food Festival if all of the entries are Big Macs?

    As for the work that WG4 does, I'm going to cover that in Part II, so don't worry that I'll neglect that important part of the story. And then there is the big Part III. Let me build up to it.

  • Anonymous 2009/10/02, 14:12

    Doug, re: "Open Formula happens to be the only aspect of 1.2 that I've heard people asking us to support" then let's make sure it gets on record – NYS gov't would like you to support every aspect of every iteration of ODF that are approved by OASIS. That includes all portions of each version of ODF, not just selected pieces.

    ODF is the only ISO-approved XML-based document format for new documents I am aware of. (Yes, I know about OOXML, but that's not a document format – by ISO's own terms contained in ISO/IEC 29500 OOXML is a temporary converter format to be used only when needed to carry forward old proprietary documents into XML – in other words, rarely needed, applicable only to old documents, and certainly not appropriate for creating original documents. That's what ODF is for).

    In terms of support for ODF, there is no need to wait for ISO approval of any new versions of ODF – OASIS approval is good enough for us.

    So now you and everyone has heard it. Everyone has previously heard this said loudly also in so many terms in NYS's "Strategy for Openness" report spoken with uniform voice across branches of our state government who helped create that report. And your colleagues have heard this said by us verbally in meetings they requested with us as well. We've been saying it loudly and clearly for a long time.

    Respectfully, the old "our customers have not been asking for this" argument is not applicable to ODF. NYS govt is a huge customer. We commend your existing efforts to support ODF but we ask all vendors to please fully support ODF, throughout all of its OASIS-approved-iterations and in all of its aspects, as soon as possible.

    John Cody

    PS: I have plugged in "anonymously" here but please feel free to contact me offline if you doubt the authorship of this posting. You are always of course welcome to contact our agency if you need clarification of the degree of commitment to open standards we expect.

  • Anonymous 2009/10/03, 04:22

    I am still confused about the date when ODF 1.2 goes official. Of course I am not expecting a clear date but a prediction like "Nov 2009" or even "Q1 2010". And yes, I read your June post about this but the chart was not that clear to me.

    If nobody with clear relationship to ODF is able to make such a prediction then I think it makes many uncertain of ODF's status when even Wikipedia tells that the process has drawn out:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDocument#Standardization

  • André Rebentisch 2009/10/03, 05:37

    The research society is spelled "Fraunhofer" and it is well documented that the Fraunhofer Fokus people are contracted. http://www.fraunhofer.de/

    There seems to be a lack of capacity of other industry players attached to the Committee work and the development of ODF 1.2 components, as Doug points out. This does not withstand or contradict the representation balance issue.

  • Rob 2009/10/03, 09:17

    @Anonymous,

    No need to be confused as to when ODF 1.2 is official. When ODF 1.2 is approved it will be well-publicized.

    And note that there are two kinds of "schedules". In the first kind you control resources and priorities and can try to meet a predefined deadline by using various techniques such as adding headcount, eliminating or deferring features to reduce the remaining work, lowering quality, etc. I think we're all familiar with how that kind of schedule works.

    There is nothing wrong with that approach per se, but this is not how most standards are created. With open standards you have autonomous resources, who come and go and have their own day-to-day priorities. You also have a consensus-oriented process that gives quite a different dynamic than you might have with the top-down hierarchical control you typically have in an internal corporate environment. So we really can't mandate a schedule for a standard. The best we can do is estimate dates, knowing that these estimates will change. But I wouldn't call this 'drawn out'. This is simply the nature of standards work and dealing with autonomous resources and a consensus process.

    In any case, my current estimate is for us to send ODF 1.2 out for public review later this year and then to have a vote to approve it as an OASIS Standard in Q1 2010. Again, this is only an estimate.

    @Andre, thanks. I'll correct the spelling.

  • Oliver Bell 2009/10/04, 10:08

    Another plausable sounding post Rob. Of course Microsoft turn up, there are current and planned products that make use of IS29500, and IS26300 for that matter.

    Your chart highlights the need for other interested parties to come to the table. There is nothing stopping them, other than maybe a lack of interest.

  • Anonymous 2009/10/05, 01:24

    "Another plausable sounding post Rob. Of course Microsoft turn up, there are current and planned products that make use of IS29500, and IS26300 for that matter."

    Are you trying to dodge the question?

    Of course Microsoft should provide their best experts. The presence of experts is not Robs complaint…instead he wonders why the meetings are so filled with Microsoft personal that are clearly not experts. What plausible reason are there to send these people?

    "Your chart highlights the need for other interested parties to come to the table. There is nothing stopping them, other than maybe a lack of interest."

    Exactly, lack of customer interest most likely. It is not like there is any evidence of Microsoft using OOXML to aid interoperability.

  • tyche 2009/10/11, 16:15

    Mr. Weir,

    I've said it before (http://tycheent.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/rip-international-standards-organization/) and I'll say it again. ISO is finished as a standards organization. It committed suicide as assuredly as a well to do person willingly walking into a "bad" neighborhood known to be the habitué of rogues and criminals at night. We can only morn their loss and wonder if there will be anything that will replace them.

  • dbmuse 2009/10/11, 18:50

    I wish Google would offset Microsoft's play for dominance or destruction of competitors. Wake up sleeping giant.

  • Doug Mahugh 2009/10/12, 14:57

    John, Office supports the latest published version of ODF, version 1.1, so I'm not sure what else you're looking for. Are you saying that the state of NY would like to see implementers support standards that are under development, prior to the official public review process? Fascinating.

  • Rob 2009/10/12, 20:03

    @Doug, From what I read Microsoft is proposing to the EC to implement future versions of ODF, but only 9 months after "final publication" of ISO versions of ODF. Since publication can take up to 6 months after approval in ISO, and approval in ISO can take 14 months after approval by OASIS, this suggests that future versions of ODF would not be implemented in MS Office until almost 2 years after approval by OASIS, even though the technical provisions would be fixed after approval by OASIS.

    That is what comes to mind when I read John saying "we ask all vendors to please fully support ODF, throughout all of its OASIS-approved-iterations and in all of its aspects, as soon as possible."

  • Usage May Vary 2009/10/13, 15:43

    wow, doug has threadjacked this in one comment. not just any, but the *first* comment.

    impressive.

  • Anonymous 2009/10/23, 11:05

    Doug:

    There is nothing in NYS law, or in our "Strategy for Openness" report, requiring or recommending use by NYS government only of ISO-approved standards.

    You can read the report at: http://www.cio.ny.gov/policy/esra/erecords-study.htm

    NYS government asked for "full" and "direct" support of ODF in the "Strategy for Openness" report. If you feel the report didn't define this request sufficiently and it would be helpful to have further explication of what "full" or "direct" support consists of, please let that be known to your contacts in NYS government and I'm sure we can issue a supplement to the report. We're here to help.

    As to supporting standards that are in process, if there is for all practical purposes a reference implementation generally agreed upon I personally don't see a problem with that except perhaps at the practical level of release cycles.

    But Doug, are you sure the concern you raise about that is a consistent one? Please correct me if I am wrong, but I thought the only ISO-approved version of ODF was version 1.0, and because of some procedural reasons at the ISO, ISO approval of version 1.1 had not taken place at the time your company and others started supporting version 1.1.

    So if it is okay to support not-yet-ISO-approved version 1.1, then why is it not okay to support not-yet-ISO-approved version 1.2?

    PS, please feel free to contact me directly if you would like to continue this discussion in greater detail offline.

    And if you or others continue to need further clarity as to what NYS was asking for in its "Strategy for Openness" report, then I strongly encourage you to support the creation of the Electronic Records Committee recommended in that report, and/or the publication of periodic updates of the report.

    Thanks, John

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