OOXML approved, but some say standards process needs review

During the ISO process, both sides were accused of overt and covert politicking

Now that the ISO has standardized Office Open XML some are asking if the standards process itself is next in line for a thorough evaluation.

OOXML, which took nearly 15 months and a long contentious battle to complete, was formally adopted this week. But even before changes to the specification, now officially IS 29500 at the ISO, are formally published, questions are starting to pop up about the entire standards process.

"I think this will be a milestone, or checkpoint, for what does it mean to be a standard," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group. "And why is one standards organization perceived to be better or more authoritative than another and what are the policies for becoming a standard. Is it the case that Microsoft did an etiquette breach? Or is this kind of business as usual for standards organizations."

During the ISO process, both sides were accused of overt and covert politicking. Microsoft was perhaps stung the worst in admitting that an employee at its Swedish subsidiary offered monetary compensation to partners who would vote in favor of Sweden supporting OOXML during the final September 2 vote. Microsoft moved quick to correct the error.

In addition, there was a last minute scramble of new national bodies joining ISO to vote on OOXML, there were status upgrades by existing national bodies to gain stronger influence on the outcome, and enough jockeying for positions on committees that some experienced gridlock that hampered the entire standardization process.

And the final vote at the ISO's Ballot Resolution meeting in February dipped into controversy when the participants changed rules on the fly in order to meet a mandatory deadline.

Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, says questions need to be raised now that the IS 29500 work is complete. Sutor, whose employer was a vocal critic of OOXML from the beginning, says consistency, balance and transparency are needed.

"Not all standards are created equally and not all standards organizations are created equally either," he wrote on his blog. "The experience of the last few months has made this painfully clear. But more than anything I can say, I think we need a fundamental discussion among those committed to improving and perhaps reforming the various standards processes around the world."

He says standards bodies at all levels that work well should be emulated.

As far as the ISO process, Microsoft said it worked as intended.

"Each national body has its own processes for determining what its position will be and we believe those processes were followed," says Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards. "The process has worked. We have seen improvement in the specification and because of that improvement there is widespread support for ratification," he says.

OOXML took a path from Microsoft's development labs to submission to Ecma, which approved OOXML as a standard in December 2006 under the title Ecma-376 Office Open XML. Ecma then recommended the format for ISO fast-track standardization.

In the end, the final tally on the ISO vote was 24 participant members, or P-members, out of 32 voting in favor of approving DIS 29500 (now IS 29500 after the approval vote). The 75 per cent approval rate was more than the 66 per cent needed for ratification. In addition, among the voting national bodies of the individual nations, only 10 negative votes were cast out of 71 total. The 14 per cent negative voting rate came in well below the threshold of 25 per cent established by the ISO to mark failure of a measure.

The ISO now has a mandatory two-month period in which it will hear appeals to the final result. If no appeals are entered, the final IS 29500 standard will be published in June.

Burton Group's O'Kelly says, "Most significantly from the Microsoft perspective is that Microsoft will not be precluded from doing business with organizations that mandate ISO standards for document formats."

But critics say it won't be that easy.

"People are deciding there is more to open than open source," said Andy Updegrove, a lawyer, Linux Foundation board member and author of the Consortiuminfo.org's Standards blog. "There are open standards, open development and open content and that is an increasingly powerful force in the marketplace. And people who care most, a large percentage of them don't think that OOXML should be regarded as part of that category. There is no open implementation of OOXML and likely there will never be one."

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