I have a lot of respect for Patrick Durusau. He has taught me much about how ISO standards work in practice, and I have benefited from his thoughts on that subject. I hope I can repay my debt to Patrick even in part, by teaching him something about how Microsoft works, in practice, a subject where I have expertise he lacks.
From the start Patrick has remained publicly silent on the topic of OOXML. No blog posts, no press, nothing. If you asked, he would say that this was his policy. Privately, you would get an earful (all negative), but as befits the unbiased chair of the committee which is responsible for the technical recommendation for the US NB, he kept his personal opinions out of the public arena.
This public orientation changed recently. As best I can figure it, on returning from a conference in Seattle in late January, Patrick was a changed man. Patrick is now an enthusiastic OOXML supporter and is eager to inform the world of his delight in OOXML at every opportunity. He posts his “open letters” on his web site, which are linked to, often within minutes, by the various Microsoft bloggers, and then sent around by Microsoft employees to the press and the various JTC1 NB’s.
Patrick is entitled to his own opinions. Free speech (and free enterprise for that matter) are things which all red-blooded Americans believe in, among other things. So long as Patrick makes it clear that he is speaking for himself, I have no problem with this.
Of course, Microsoft will not be so careful to distinguish Patrick’s personal opinions from his professional affiliations. So a post from Patrick’s personal web site is retold on a Microsoft blog as “The ODF Editor says….”, and then the next day is sent in an email to NB’s with a larger set of “endorsements”:
Chair, V1 – US TAG to JTC 1/SC 34
Convener, JTC 1/SC 34/WG 3 (Topic Maps)
Editor, OpenDocument Format TC (OASIS), Project Editor ISO/IEC 26300
Co-Editor, ISO/IEC 13250-1, 13250-5 (Topic Maps)
By the time it is actually discussed at the NB committee level, I wouldn’t be surprised if it morphs into an assertion that JTC1/SC34, INCITS, the ODF TC and the City Council of Covington, Georgia have all approved OOXML. It is dangerous to wear many hats when dealing with Microsoft. They are not ones for fine distinctions.
But now on to the substance of Patrick’s letters.
In his first note, the “OpenXML Poster Child“, Patrick says:
OpenXML has progressed from being developed in a closed environment to being handed over to approximately 70% of the world’s population for future development so I am missing the “not open” aspect of OpenXML. If anything, the improvements made to OpenXML during that process make it a poster child for the open standards development process.
I understand that SC 34 will be taking on the maintenance and future development of OpenXML (with the participation of Ecma). That will mean that approximately 70% of the world’s population will have a say (through their respective national bodies) on how OpenXML continues to develop. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself but that sounds pretty open to me. (That presumes approval of OpenXML as an ISO standard, which must be decided by every national body for itself.)
We’ve covered this before. Let’s go down the list again. Where are the minutes from Ecma TC45 teleconferences? Where are the public archives of their mailing list? Where is the list of individuals participating in the TC? Where is the list of voting members? Where are the public comments they have received on OOXML? You call this open?
And don’t give me the canard about how moving to SC34 results in greater representation.
In the US who represents our population? The 7 members of V1 before the DIS 29500 process began? Or the 26 members after Microsoft stuffed V1 (the committee that you chair) with business partners last summer? Or V1 after several of them were kicked out for not paying their dues? Or the V1 after the DIS 29500 procedure completes and the warm bodies fade away? In your opinion, which one do you believe truly represents our US population?
Similarly, SC34 was stuffed with new P-members and swelled from 9 P-members in 2006 to 40 today, most of which voted in favor of OOXML and then failed to participate in any other SC activities. Are you seriously suggesting that SC34 was increasing the world’s influence over Microsoft’s decisions? That sounds quite naive. To me this looks much more like Microsoft is increasing their influence over the world, and JTC1 NB’s in particular.
The long list of shenanigans recorded, from Sweden to Portugal, from Poland to Switzerland is further evidence that the second interpretation is the accurate one. Is offering Microsoft partners rewards for joining a committee a way of increasing openness? Is joining JTC1 three days before the Sept. 2nd vote, then voting Yes without comments the way in which the world is able to gain a seat at the table?
Patrick’s next post is “Co-Evolution“. This, plus Microsoft’s recent interoperability announcements (yes, yet more announcements) give the impression that they believe it is better to talk about interoperability than to do something about it. Interoperability is something we only talk about now, but accomplish sometime in the nebulous future, like weight loss or reducing the national debt. Create studies, write reports, open labs, make test cases, write more reports. But when given the opportunity to do something now which would actually improve interoperability, like adding missing features to OOXML to accommodate the richer text model in ODF, then just say “No”. You can always do a study on this later, and write another report, and make a test case.
But if announcements alone could improve interoperability, then Microsoft would have solved this problem long ago and many times over.
The perspective that is missing in Patrick’s analysis is that of the vast part of the world’s population that does not benefit, and in fact is distinctly disadvantaged by having multiple incompatible document standards. We’ve been here before, in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was not fun. We should not be seeking ways to repeat that failure.
Much of the world is also disadvantaged by the monopolist’s rent paid on Microsoft products and the associated lack of choice in today’s software monoculture. I’d rather help the world free itself of this oppression than appease the oppressor in hopes that he’ll wield a more lenient whip.
Last September, the NB’s of Great Britain, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, and the United States all requested that specific features be added to OOXML in order to improve interoperability with ISO ODF, in total 40 features such as the ability to have background images in tables or to have font weights beyond “normal” and “bold”. These were the exact features that Microsoft’s translator project on SourceForge identified as needed to improve interoperability with ODF. Ecma rejected all of these requests. They did not reject them because the features were unreasonable. They were rejected purely because they were ODF features.
So given the chance to do more than just write reports and have panel discussions, Ecma refused to move interoperability forward even one inch. If this is them on their best behavior (they desperately need NB approval votes), then why would we expect greater consideration from them if OOXML were approved?
In his next letter,”Confusion“, Patrick responds to Andy Updegrove, but not having followed that debate, I’m the one who is now confused. Patrick seems to be arguing that it doesn’t matter whether OOXML is “good” or not (in fact he seems to argue that there is no “good” or “bad” when it comes to XML) but that it will be better if OOXML was someplace where we could talk at it more.
I don’t know whether I’d choose to use moral terms when describing engineering artifacts either, but I would note that if the basic protocols and formats of the web were as poorly designed as OOXML, the web would never have thrived to become the glory it is today.
In “On the Importance of Being Heard” Patrick generously gives us his opinion of the DIS 29500 BRM he did not attend. The argument formally comes down to this:
- Based on published and unpublished reports from the BRM, it appears that “everyone at the table was heard” and “Microsoft was listening to everyone” in a “public and international” forum.
- If we now reject OOXML, we “all lose a seat at the table where the next version of the Office standard is being written”.
- If we approve OOXML, even though “rough” then this “gives all of us a seat at the table for the next Office standard”.
- Therefore, Patrick recommends approval of DIS 29500.
This argument has several critical flaws.
First, it is inaccurate to call the BRM proceedings “public”. Neither the public nor the press was allowed to attend. Security guards were posted at the door to enforce this mandate. JTC1 is a private, Swiss-headquartered NGO, answerable to no one, with no statutory responsibility to the public. Patrick talks about “ordinary users, governments, smaller interests” having a seat at the table. This is a fantasy. I did not see any such representation at the table in Geneva. One in five BRM attendees were Microsoft employees. Over 25% of the 114 people in attendance were either Microsoft or Ecma TC45 members. I fear that Patrick underestimates the extent to which NB’s have been stacked over the past two years and that he preserves some illusion of SC34 NB’s comprised of “ordinary users, governments, smaller interests”. Maybe that was true a few years ago, but the neighborhood has changed.
Was everyone at the table heard? Formally, it is true that every delegation had the opportunity to raise a single issue during the week. Some (those earlier in the alphabet) had the opportunity to raise two issues. But I think it is disingenuous to cast that as “everyone at the table was heard”. For many delegations it was true that for every issue they were able to raise, they had 10 or 20 more that they wanted to raise, based on their analysis of Ecma’s proposed dispositions, but were unable to because of insufficient time.
Was Microsoft listening? Yes. Everyone in the room was listening. Formally only the BRM itself could authorize changes to the standard at this point, regardless of Microsoft’s or Ecma’s opinion. So it is moot as to whether Microsoft was attentive. Whether they listened or not has zero impact on the ability of the BRM to make changes.
Patrick also appears to be impressed that this discussion all takes place “at a table where a standard for a future product was being debated by non-Microsoft groups?” What future product? The future product is Office 14 (Office 2009). Microsoft has not informed JTC1 nor Ecma on what the changes to OOXML will be for Office 14, due out later this year in beta form.
And then we come to main point of Patrick’s argument. Vote “Yes” so we all have a seat at the table. Before we buy into that logic, I suggest we examine other Microsoft/Ecma standards and see how their approval has or has not lead to increased participation.
Microsoft has two primary ways to negate broader participation in a standard’s maintenance. The first is standards abandonment. Take for example Ecma-234 “Application Programming Interface for Windows”. A contemporary observer might have been just as enthusiastic as Patrick is now. Wow! Isn’t this great? They are finally opening up and listening to the world! We finally have a seat at the table! I have a feeling that things are going to be better from now on!
Unfortunately, this standard was approved in December 1995 and covers the Windows 3.1 API only. Since Windows 95 shipped in August 1995, this Ecma standard was obsolete on the day it was approved. No revision of the standard was ever issued. Microsoft abandoned it.
Now certainly, there was nothing in principle that prevented the non-Microsoft Ecma members from continuing to maintain Ecma-234, creating errata documents, polishing up the language of the clauses, etc. But they had no effective way of actually evolving the standard when Microsoft withdrew from the process. That is the danger when you approve a single-vendor standard on the false assumption that this leads to openness.
The other way to negate broader participation in standards development is to create technical revisions at a rapid pace, and to create them within Microsoft with little outside participation. Note that this is how OOXML was created in the first place. And this is how Microsoft/Ecma maintains standards like the C# Programming Language. Ask your friends in JTC1/SC22 whether “70% of the world’s population” has a “seat at the table” in evolving that standard. Let me know what you hear. I believe you’ll hear that there has been negligible WG activity around C# maintenance, and that new revisions are promulgated by Microsoft, rubber stamped by Ecma, and sent on to SC22, canceling the previous standard and replacing it with the new one.
This trick can be very effective whenever the underlying Microsoft product has an update every 2-3 years. If your product revisions are more frequent than the required JTC1 maintenance checkpoints, then you can effectively ignore JTC1. That’s how Microsoft/Ecma has played the game in the past.
Note that Office 2007 has been out since late 2006. Office 14 (Office 2009) is due out in beta form this year, with expected release next year. Any bets on whether the file format will require a technical revision to accommodate Office 2009? There is absolutely nothing that prevents Microsoft from submitting a revised file format specification for Ecma, getting a rubber stamp approval and then Fast Tracking it back into JTC1. Since that is how they have treated other Microsoft/Ecma standards, the burden is on those who argue the contrary to support their optimism.
So consider the facts:
- Microsoft has not supported the JTC1 maintenance process with their other Ecma Fast Tracks. There is no broader “seat at the table”, no power sharing, no ownership by “70% of the world’s population”. It is 100% Microsoft.
- Microsoft’s current charter in Ecma TC45 explicitly calls for Ecma to own maintenance of OOXML if approved, not SC34.
- Ecma in fact has submitted a proposal [PDF] to SC34 asking for control of OOXML to be handed back to them.
- With their “rejuvenation” of SC34 (from 9 to 40 P-members in 2 years) Microsoft clearly has the votes it would need to force any maintenance regime they desire.
- No one at Microsoft has made an official statement in writing confirming Patrick’s vision of future maintenance. In fact their only official statement, the Ecma proposal to SC34 cited above, contradicts what Patrick is suggesting. So why are only 3rd parties speaking so glowingly about the future control of OOXML? Plausible deniability, anyone?
Until the following occur I’d advise a bit more skepticism, considering that we’re dealing with a company with a clear record of abusing, subverting, abandoning, embracing and extending etc., standards:
- Ecma changes their TC45 charter to explicitly call for all maintenance activities (corrigenda as well as technical revisions) to be performed in an SC34 WG.
- Ecma explicitly withdraws their submission on DIS 29500 maintenance from the agenda of the Oslo SC34 Plenary and instead submits a proposal asking for future OOXML work to be done in a new WG in SC34, with a non-Microsoft chair.
- Microsoft publicly states that they will hand operational control of OOXML to SC34, not only for maintenance of OOXML 1.0, but also for technical revisions, and that they will support this being done under JTC1 IPR rules, and using the JTC1 process, and that they will implement whatever revisions SC34 develops within 1 year of approval.
Until you have that, you have nothing. Get that, and then you can start talking about having a “seat at the table”.
In his most recent post, “Russian Peasant” Patrick suggests that the only reason one would vote against OOXML is spite, and that any problems could be fixed in maintenance.
Let’s try another analogy. You are shopping for a new TV and you go to your local consumer electronics store and look at the array of television sets lined up. Most come with a warranty. Any defects detected within the maintenance period will be fixed at the manufacturer’s expense. This is generally a good thing, having a maintenance period to fix problems that were not evident at purchase time.
So you find the model TV you want, the salesperson rolls out the box and just before you hand over your credit card, you notice a big gash on the side of the box, where a forklift had pierced it. You say, “I can’t accept this TV, it has been smashed!”. The salesperson says, “Don’t worry. No TV is perfect. We can fix this in maintenance. You’re fully covered.”
Do you hand over your credit card? Of course not. Maintenance periods, with TV’s as with standards, are for defects detected after the fact. It is not a replacement for proper inspection, review and approval processes. You expect a TV to work properly at the start.
No standard is perfect. We all know that. But at the time of approval, NB’s should be confident that their technical review was sufficient to find all of the important issues, and that these issues have all been fixed in the standard. OOXML should not be approved unless it is suitable now. The maintainers of OOXML will be busy enough fixing other problems that will be found later. We should not willingly approve a defective standard and set up a future maintenance group for failure by front-loading their agenda with defects that we already know about.
Consider: If we do that, then on what grounds can we reject another Fast Track proposal ever again? This slippery argument — we can fix that in maintenance — can be used for every single proposal that ever comes along. Why even have JTC1 at this point? Easier for everyone involved just hand the “International Standard” stamp over to Ecma and allow them to rubber stamp their own International Standards. This will save the time and expense of engaging hundreds of representatives from 87 JTC1 NB’s for a year for a sham review.
My advice is this. Let’s turn this train wreck around. Vote No on DIS 29500 and send a clear message that 6,000 page immature standards are not appropriate for JTC1 Fast Track. It showed poor judgment and great disrespect toward JTC1 NB’s for Microsoft to send this mess via Fast Track in the first place.
Microsoft has every right to feel that they are late to the game, and risk being left behind for their lack of an open document standard. But they should not expect that they can simply throw money around and remedy their long neglect overnight. And certainly they should not expect JTC1 NB’s to do the work for them. Microsoft should work on their specification at the consortium level and get it right first. Once when they have something mature, then they should send it along, preferable in smaller parts submitted sequentially. If they are unwilling or incapable of fixing the specification in Ecma then they could propose it as a new work item in SC34, where they may find some assistance. But if they persist on the standard remaining a single vendor standard, unilaterally controlled to benefit that single vendor, then I wouldn’t expect a warm reception in SC34 either.