Tim Anderson has an interesting article up on his ITWriting blog, “Microsoft’s Jean Paoli on the XML document debate”. Of course, I treat anything Jean Paoli says on XML with such attention as I usually reserve for listening to the isorhythmic motets of Philippe de Vitry. Like de Vitry, Paoli can be understood on several different levels: What is he saying? And what is he really saying. As a student of Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, I hope that I am up to the task.
There is, of course, the familiar canard, that IBM is the source of all of their problems:
It is clear though that Paoli is upset by what he sees as an international campaign against OOXML orchestrated by IBM, the sole naysayer in the ECMA voting. “There are IBM employees going to ISO, and saying a lot of technically incorrect things. When ODF went to ISO Microsoft did not interfere. IBM is betting on ODF, to have governments preferentially buying IBM software. It is OK to compete, but using this kind of argument around is it an open format or not … it’s widely known now, Office Open XML is an open format, even the EU says it is.”
A Google search on the words ecma ibm sole vote returns an embarrassingly large number of hits. Microsoft has certainly been having fun with this line. Let’s take a little look at this question and see if we can better define this conspiracy that Paoli is alluding to.
I’m now going to rant a little. You may want to stand back.
Yes, IBM was the only voting member in Ecma who cast a voted against OOXML. But guess what, we’re probably the only company who actually had someone perform the due diligence of reading the specification. The others voted on OOXML without reading the spec. So please give their “Yes” votes all the weight they deserve, but not more.
It seems to me that Ecma has become a standards factory, a place where you go for clean, efficient, no-guilt, fast-track service. Don’t want to publish your public comments? Fuggetaboutit. Don’t want to publish your meeting minutes? Fuggetaboutit. Worried about rushing through a 6,000 page specification in less than a year, with 20x less scrutiny than average? Fuggetaboutit. Want to have a unanimous vote, along with with a souvenir photograph of your face when the vote occurs? Yes sir, we guarantee it.
However, for the privilege of this elite service, you must cough up the dough. You will not find Ecma’s rate card on their website, but I’m told that voting membership will set you back $57,000. This is not exactly the club to join if you are a small (or medium) business, non-profit, public sector agency, or anything but one of the big boys. A list of the privileged twenty voting members of Ecma can be found here.
As you can imagine, one does not become a voting member of Ecma without a good reason. This is a business expense, not a charitable contribution. For $57K, one expects $57K of service. To justify that membership fee, you expect your technology to be blessed with an Ecma standards imprimatur without hassles. So the “unwritten rule” is that everyone votes in favor of everyone else’s proposal. It is considered rude to vote against something that another elite member has paid so much for. So, IBM gets get a lot of grief for casting a single “No” vote at a single Ecma General Assembly. We broke the club rules. I’m proud to work for such a company.
My question is this: How many “No” votes have been cast in Ecma in the past 5 years? When before did another Ecma member ever vote “No” on a standard? If no one can remember even a single previous “No” vote, or (sacre bleu!) a defeated standard, then that speaks volumes. In a healthy standards body, a single “No” vote should not be a newsworthy event, and should certainly not be something that Microsoft is still complaining about 6 months later.
To put this in perspective, the base category of OASIS voting memberships (Contributor) starts at $1,100. OASIS has something like 330 organizational members eligible to vote, including all categories of companies, government agencies, non-profits, etc.
I should also note, just coming from the annual OASIS Symposium held last week, that the OASIS Board of Directors is looking at changing the OASIS voting rules to make it more difficult for OASIS standards to be approved. Yup, we’re raising the bar.
When I see this I need to try extra hard to remind myself that IBM is just interfering with Microsoft’s good-faith attempt to humbly submit for our consideration their well-written, detailed, high-quality, interoperable open standard.
ISO/IEC JTC1/SC34 recently had its annual plenary. This is the same group of ISO National Body (NB) members who voted in favor of ODF last year, and over the next few months many of them will be recommending positions on Microsoft’s OOXML to their national standards bodies. I was on the delegates list for attending this meeting, as a representative of the US NB, but had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency. When I saw the attendance list, I was surprised to see that Microsoft had sent five people, this to a meeting of only 37 people. They practically darkened the skies with their employees. And what about the conspiratorial army that is hounding them at every corner? Zero people from IBM. Zero as well for Google, Sun, RedHat, Adobe, Oracle and Novell.
When I read this I need to remind myself that I’m part of a vast global conspiracy to deny Microsoft a fair hearing within ISO. The fact that no one in this vast global conspiracy managed to show up at the meeting was simply a ploy to make Microsoft feel overconfident.
In the US NB, we have a committee called INCITS V1. It is the mirror committee to JTC1/SC34. I serve on it, the only member from IBM. Imagine my surprise, when at our last call, Microsoft shows up with 3 employees and a business partner as new members. Four people against little ol’ me? Come on guys, that is just sad.
At times like this I need to remind myself that Microsoft is the underdog and IBM and its allies are ganging up them. But our guys are invisible at meetings and although they cannot vote, they do have ninja powers and, in matters of external affairs, the delegated plenipotentiary prerogatives of Klingon Ambassadors. “choSuvchugh ‘oy’lIj Daghur neH”.
Microsoft bloggers, fed and spreading like mushrooms, recently popped up and simultaneously announced a new pro-OOXML petition, self-published, self-hosted and self-reported by Microsoft. You couldn’t find anyone to even pretend to support you? You had to host your own petition? This is like throwing a birthday party and having only your mother show up. Very sad. Where are your friends, Microsoft? How come we hear no one else speaking approvingly about OOXML? Where are the other companies lining up? Where are the endorsements? The testimonials? All we hear is that Microsoft thinks OOXML is great. But that is just Mom cheering on your performance. Don’t you have any real support?
Btw, this is what a real petition looks like. It is hosted by a reputable party (the Prime Minister) and gives a open, public listing and tally of those who signed the petition.
At times like this I need to remind myself that the ODF supports are the outsiders in this debate, using unconventional and covert tactics to fight a well-respected and well-loved mainstream technology generously provided by Microsoft.
I see that Microsoft likes to throw around names like the British Library and Library of Congress, as if the mere mention of their holy names brings sacramental blessings. But please show me a public statement where either of these bodies has endorsed, adopted, recommended adoption or recommended approval of OOXML. The mere mention in passing of well-known and popular institutions lends no credibility to your argument, and credible arguments are important, as is well-known to anyone familiar with Walt Disney World, the Louvre, NASA , the Boston Red Sox, or the Department of Really Important Stuff .
A Malaysian standards committee was moving forward to approve ODF as a national standard in Malaysia. This is called “transposing” an International Standard, and is commonly done when a relevant International Standard is approved. Microsoft has made every attempt possible to prevent this committee from making progress with their review of ODF, for almost a year now. This progress recently came to a halt, the committee’s decisions nullified and the committee suspended.
When standards committees are disbanded when they get too close to approving ODF, then I must pinch myself and remind myself once again that IBM is the one orchestrating international campaigns against Microsoft, and not the other way around.
I’ve heard similar complaints from other NB’s. Why bother reviewing OOXML? Why waste the effort reading it and suggesting improvements? Microsoft has ignored every suggestion given it so far by NB’s. And if you vote no, Microsoft will just escalate and try to get some mid-level government bureaucrat to set aside the recommendation of your country’s technical experts. What waste the next 4 months reviewing a 6,000 page specification? It happened in Malaysia. It happened in the US. The INCITS Executive Board was about to send a contradiction submission against OOXML, saying that it possibly contradicted ODF. But before the committee could reconvene the next morning, enough members had received urgent phone calls to cause them to change their vote and abstain. We saw this in the Netherlands as well, where it was even reported in the papers that they would vote against OOXML. But that vote was changed at the last minute with the cryptic message to the JTC1 Secretariat: “The Netherlands Standardization institute votes ‘abstain’. Please change our vote accordingly and please confirm receipt of this vote to me…” What happened there is still unclear. In India it was even worse, when the committee that was supposed to get the ballot did not receive it. Evidently it was misplaced. The intervention of the leader of a major national political party was required to straighten it out. I also received a note saying that the committee was being told that the deadline for responding to the ballot was two weeks later than it really was, a delay that would have invalidated their vote if they had fallen into that trap.
When I see stuff like this happening, I need to remind myself, really, really hard, that IBM is the bad guy in this debate and that we’re the one interfering with an orderly ISO process.
When an amendment to a Florida State Senate bill was offered that called for a “business case analysis” for the use of open standard document formats (no particular format was called out) Microsoft’s lobbyists, the three Men in Black, Will McKinley of Dutko Poole McKinley, Jim Daughton, Jr. and Geoffrey Becker both of Metz, Hauser, Husband & Daughton, swarmed down and zapped it. As one legislative aide put it, “By the time those lobbyists were done talking, it sounded like ODF (Open Document Format, the free and open format used by OpenOffice.org and other free software) was proprietary and the Microsoft format was the open and free one”. Perhaps a document, left by the lobbyists, filled with lies about ODF, had something to do with it? We should be fortunate that Microsoft sent only three lobbyists to handle this, rather than all nine lobbyists who are registered in Florida alone to support Microsoft’s legislative activities.
When expressing our technical opinion defines interference, and the outrages that Microsoft is getting away with become the norms of behavior, then we’re all doomed to a future of technical subservience. We all need to remind ourselves of that.
Microsoft likes to complain, and they are evidently becoming quite adept at it. If decibels and dollars could win arguments then they would surely be the winners. But I think their protestations are mis-directed. Microsoft is like an out-of-condition middle-aged man (somewhat like myself) out for a rare jog. They can curse to the high heavens the pain they feel, but don’t blame it on others. It is called competition. Deal with it. If it hurts so much it is because you are so out of practice. You should try having competition more often. It is good for you.