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The Final OOXML Update: Part II

In Part I of this OOXML update, my first post on the topic in over a year, I showed you how Microsoft maintains strong control over the OOXML standard. Despite their earlier promises that control of OOXML would be handed over to an independent, international committee, a look at attendance records reveals that the committee that maintains OOXML (JTC1/SC34/WG4) consists mainly of Microsoft employees, who outnumber any other company or organization on the committee 10-to-1.

In this, Part II of my OOXML update, I’ll tie up another loose end from the immediate aftermath of the DIS 29500 BRM.

Let’s start by casting our memories back to April, 2008. The BRM was over. NBs had reviewed thousands of pages and submitted thousands of defects. And Microsoft/Ecma made thousands of responses. And the BRM approved thousands of changes. Then, as a final step, NBs were asked if they wanted to change their vote from their original September 2007 vote, based on the changes made to the standard by the BRM.

Curiously, NBs were asked to make their final decision without actually seeing the text of the standard they were being asked to approve. ISO leadership denied requests from several NBs, a formal SC34 resolution requesting this text, as well as NB appeals, all which asked to have access to the “final DIS” text that would eventually be published. The ISO chief, in his response to the NB appeals, called the final text of OOXML “irrelevant” (prophetic words, indeed!) and would only permit NBs to have access to a list of over 1,000 resolutions from the BRM, many of which gave great editing discretion to the Microsoft consultant who would eventually produce the final text of the specification.

I discussed why the lack of a final DIS text was a problem back in May 2008:

We are currently approaching a two month period where NB’s can lodge an appeal against OOXML. Ordinarily, one of the grounds for appeal would be if the Project Editor did not faithfully carry out the editing instructions approved at the BRM. For example, if he failed to make approved changes, made changes that were not authorized, or introduced new errors when applying the approved changes. But with no final DIS text, the NB’s are unable to make any appeals on those grounds. By delaying the release of the final DIS text, JTC1 is preventing NB’s from exercising their rights.

Would you make thousands of changes to code and then not allow anyone to test it, and then release it internationally? Of course not. Doing so would amount to professional malpractice. But that is essentially what ISO did with OOXML.

Well, guess what happened? Indeed, the published text of OOXML failed to carry out all of the editing instructions made by the BRM. Several of the BRM resolutions were ignored altogether. Several others were applied inconsistently or erroneously. Although I am aware of no systematic review of all 1,000+ BRM decisions, some NBs have gone back and reviewed the published text against BRM decisions that should have addressed their own NB’s reported comments. They have found many “discrepancies” and these have now been reported as defect reports [PDF].

Whether the flaws in the published text are intentional or accidental, grave or minor, does not really matter here. Errare humanum est. The problem is that it was 100% predictable that human error would cause problems like this when dealing with text changes of this volume. The issue is not whether there will be errors introduced. The presence of many errors was guaranteed. The question was whether NBs are entitled to base their vote on all relevant information, including the final text of the standard, or whether relevant information, indeed the most relevant information — the text of the specification they are voting on — may be withheld from inspection. For ISO leadership to deny NBs the ability to review the very text they were voting was irresponsible.

The good news is that ISO leadership has changed since this debacle, and JTC1 is currently revising Fast Track procedures, in part to deal with the abuses of DIS 29500. One of the changes they are making is to the Fast Track procedure will require that the final DIS text be distributed to NBs before the final vote. This is progress and it is good to see these changes made, though it is unfortunate that it required a failure before such obvious and prudent precautions were instituted. Leadership entails foreseeing and preventing problems, not simply reacting to them. In any case, the NBs that appealed to ISO on the basis of not being allowed to see the final text should feel vindicated now. The NBs of India, Brazil and South Africa were right.

In Part III of this Update, I’ll bring the story up to the present day, and in Part IV I’ll update the story through the year 2016.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Pete 2009/10/16, 5:25 pm

    I hope that they are considering other changes to keep the system from being gamed like MS did…

    if anything hurt the peoples opinion of the ISO it was the way the it allowed MS to game it..

  • Anonymous 2009/10/16, 8:15 pm

    Why bother locking the barn door now that the horses have already run out? The ISO leadership then obviously got bought and paid for, and Microsoft would have the same effect on this "new" leadership.

    When the people in the leadership positions allow themselves to be bought off, it doesn't matter how many rules are in place.

  • Rob 2009/10/16, 8:21 pm

    @Pete, I know they are considering other process changes as well. One would cause a Fast Track submission to die if the DIS ballot does not receive sufficient votes to be approved. So no BRM, etc., if the original ballot fails, as it did with OOXML.

  • Rob 2009/10/16, 8:55 pm

    @Anonymous, although there certainly have been credible allegations of NB representatives receiving "incentives" to support OOXML, I don't think it is responsible to suggest the same of ISO leadership. Poor judgment, yes. Bureaucrats acting to protect the bureaucracy, certainly. Circling the wagons to defend a perceived attack on their Avalon, absolutely. But I see no need to suspect more.

    In any case, the scope of our achievement can be seen by noting that OOXML would have died under the proposed new rules.

  • Anonymous 2009/10/16, 9:22 pm

    What about OOXML which was the cause of all this. Will it be revised and if problems found will it be removed as an ISO standard?

  • Stephan Wehner 2009/10/17, 1:22 am

    Is OOXML actually relevant, or was this not all just abuse and a waste of time?

    Are any actual users interested in this "standard"?


  • Stefan Gustavson 2009/10/17, 4:22 am

    Are there any plans on creating rules for revoking the privilege of submitting proposals on fast track? It seems to me that ECMA needs incentive to stop abusing that privilege. It would not be unreasonable to introduce a threat of having their business ruined if they repeatedly fail to do their part of the job properly.

  • Chris Ward 2009/10/17, 6:47 am

    This feels reminiscent of the situation in 1776, when we had the British attempting to impose their 'standards' and the Americans contesting the imposition strongly enough to form their own country.

    Of course we are all friends now and the ISO shenanigans are nothing more serious than 'commercial', but it's a reminder that you won't manage to please all the people all of the time.

    One group (the IBM camp ?) favours a simple standard, rather like the 110v mains electric socket ubiquitous in US households. The other group (the Microsoft camp ?) prefers a creative contribution … I hesitate to call it a standard … more reminiscent of the multiplicity of plugs and sockets we use for charging our cellphone batteries.

    So where does the future lie ? I rather doubt that the world's scientists will bother turning up at ISO again to discuss document standards; they have said their piece already, and they have academic and commercial research to get on with.

    It's up to the engineers and the salesmen, now.

  • Rob 2009/10/17, 7:30 pm

    @Stefan, there is no procedure defined in the current rules to revoke Fast Track submission rights for a Class A Liaison like Ecma. However this theoretically could be done by an extraordinary resolution of JTC1. But I don't think this would ever happen. Remember, Ecma is Microsoft's golden goose, the vehicle they've used in the past to rubber stamp other pseudo-standards,from the Windows 3.0 API, to .NET/CLI, C#, XPS, etc., and to Fast Track them into ISO. But if Microsoft/Ecma could exert enough influence and bend enough arms to get OOXML approved, then surely they could also keep Ecma in the game.

  • Anonymous 2009/10/18, 5:11 am

    Is OOXML still relevant to anything? It appears nobody has actually implemented it—even Microsoft’s own Office doesn’t follow the published version of the spec. So really, all the maneouvring by Microsoft and its opponents, whether for good or ill, have been for naught.

    Lawrence D’Oliveiro

  • Purple library guy 2009/10/18, 9:56 pm

    Hardly for naught.
    They get to tell ignorant prospective buyers and government buyers with checklists that their file format is a standard. That was the whole point from the beginning. They would hardly have wanted a format that actually behaved like a standard; everyone would have been able to interoperate with it!

  • Jakub Narebski 2009/10/23, 5:03 am

    > The other group (the Microsoft camp ?) prefers a creative contribution … I hesitate to call it a standard … more reminiscent of the multiplicity of plugs and sockets we use for charging our cellphone batteries.

    @Chris Ward actually in European Union new cellphones must use mini-USB plug to charge cellphones: the charger is now standarized.

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