Thursday, April 17, 2008
  OOXML vote doesn't end standards row
Published New Zealand Herald, April 16. 2008.

The email from the wine merchant came through late in the evening, including an attachment with a list of the specials in a 24-hour sale.
The document was generated with a new version of Word in Office 2007, which my machine wouldn’t open.
I left it to the morning to hunt around the Internet for a utility to crack the file. I achieved that about the same time a revised list in the old format arrived with an apology – but too late to pick up any of cost price sauvignon blanc I had my eye on.
That’s why there are standards – so developers of software have the specifications to make their products interoperable with others. That’s the theory anyway.
Over the past year a major battle has waged over file formats, the bit of XML code which says how a document produced with one application can be read by another application or on another computing platform.
It’s important not just for documents exchanged today but to ensure documents created in the past can be read decades hence, even if the programs which created them are no longer used.
Two years ago the International Standards Organisation adopted Open Document Format or as the standard for Office documents.
ODF was started at Sun and taken over by a consortium, the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), so it represents an open source approach to the problem.
Governments, which are major buyers of information technology, started adopting ODF as the default format for office documents, and many urged Microsoft to bring its future versions into line.
Instead Redmond set out to torpedo ODF, and this month succeeded in a way which critics say severely damages the credibility of the International Standards Organisation.
It gave information on how all the many past versions of formats like Word, Excel and Powerpoint behave to Ecma International, (originally the European Computer Equipment Manufacturers Association) to package up as a proposed standard called Office Open XML file formats.
Ecma, which has liaison status with the ISO and therefore the right to demand a fast track process, delivered up a 6000-page document, which swelled by half again once the comments came in.
OOXML was knocked back last September, but won enough votes last month to become a standard - ISO/IEC DIS 29500.
The voting process drew allegations of committee stuffing and political interference, with many countries with little previous involvement in setting standards turning up with Microsoft staffers or partners in their delegations.
Even before the vote, the European Union, which has fined Microsoft heavily in recent years for anti-competitive behaviour, was investigating how some of its member countries came to their positions.
Despite the use of the word open, OOXML is not open source. Microsoft has waived patent claims for some but not all parts of the specification.
In a detailed analysis, Matthew Cruickshank (, who was on the committee developing this country’s response, argues it is is impossible for vendors other than Microsoft to fully implement the standard, because it is packed with mistakes, undisclosed behaviours and application specific instructions. For example, an command like “autoSpaceLikeWord95” is of little use without the Word 95 source code, which is still a Microsoft secret.
Standards New Zealand says it is not a standard at all. After a rigorous process of consultation, which included input from Microsoft, it concluded there were sufficient stakeholder concerns about technical omissions, errors, inconsistencies in the draft standard, interoperability, and intellectual property to vote against it.
It did want the document published as a Technical Report, which would make the information on Microsoft’s historic file formats available to software developers.
Chief executive Debbie Chin says adoption of the standard is likely to lead to increased costs government agencies, because they may need to provide output documents which can be read in two incompatible formats.
It’s the sort of thing that could come up for agencies with international obligations for customers being able to share documents.
Organisations covered by the Public Records Act also have an interest in ensuring records are preserved in a readable electronic form, and National Archives was represented on the stakeholders committee.
She says New Zealand is keen to be involved in the ongoing process to improve OOXML and harmonise it with ODF.
It may be too late for that. The standards committee responsible for maintaining DIS 29500 has invited Ecma, that is Microsoft and its OOXML development partners, to “attend and fully participate” in its work.
Brett Roberts, Microsoft New Zealand’s national technical officer, says it was a great example of the international standards process at work.
“Standards New Zealand are allowed their viewpoint and opinion, but it’s obvious from the voting results worldwide that they are in a minority. New Zealand was in with Cuba and Venezuela and Iran and Ecuador.”
And Canada. The Standards Council of Canada’s final position statement says “the general quality of the standard was not yet what was expected of an ISO/IEC Standard, and that there were still too many unknowns.”
It also claimed the “inappropriate use of the fast track process … rendered it impossible to ascertain whether in fact 29500 meets the standard of quality and correctness required in an International Standard.”
Roberts says the impact of the new standard on commercial, non public sector organisations will be minimal.
“They always have to make technology choices based on fitness for purpose.
“For software developers, it opens up new opportunities, especially those who sell technology into the public sector, because it is the public sector that tends to look at ISO standardisation, and the fact OOXML is an ISO standard means public sector organisations have an additional option when it comes to file formats,” Roberts says.
Which is what the fuss is about, selling Microsoft to governments.
Lobbying at the ISO session which awarded the standard, former Ecma president Jan van den Beld warned that governments which mandated just one electronic document standard such as ODF may run foul of World Trade Organisation policies that standards are not used as a barrier to trade.
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