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?