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To read comments to this article, go here
What Happened in Germany
Friday, August 24 2007 @ 01:31 PM EDT

Heise is reporting now that there is an uproar over how the OOXML vote was handled in Germany. That happened in Switzerland too, where two formal objections have been filed. Portugal was a bit of a mess too, from reports we've heard. Now the same kinds of complaints are being heard from Germany.

It looks like Germany is the new Portugal, actually. You do remember how in Portugal IBM and Sun were not allowed in the room because it was allegedly "too small" despite having empty chairs? Well, in Germany, Google and Deutsche Telekom were allowed in the room but were not allowed to vote, heise says. Something about allegedly signing up too late and how they might not know enough about the issues therefore. This is turning into a not-so-funny joke.

You know what I don't understand? Why doesn't Microsoft get its format approved by just fixing it? Just as a start. Ideal would be to put into ODF whatever Microsoft thinks ODF needs and there we are, one standard the whole world can use freely. Then all its partners, working so hard with procedures in the ISO matter, could put their energies instead into making money with Microsoft, without forcing the world to suffer having to cope with two standards, neither of which works well with the other's documents. What are they all thinking?

Not about us, the public, I don't think, the very ones doomed to deal with the flotsam and jetsom of two standards if the Microsoft steamroller prevails. So your mom will send you a document you can't quite read. Worse, everything you send her she won't be able to even figure out how to open on her computer. And so you'll be doing tech support for all your Windows-using relatives for the rest of your natural born days. Are we on probation or in purgatory or something, being tested and refined? I know. There isn't one, but it feels like I'm stuck in Microsoft purgatory.

Anyway, the Fraunhofer Institute, where the chairman of the DIN subcommittee, a Mr. Schürmann, works released a statement yesterday, which Michael Schinagle translates for us:

"The beginning standardization procedure of Office Open XML as an ISO standard will lead to a technological development of both standards – Office Open XML and ODF 1.0. The constructive comments that have been made alongside the DIN approval from leading experts guide the way in direction of interoperability" says the head of the department e-Government at Fraunhofer FOKUS and head of the DIN work group `translation of document formats´. "We at Fraunhofer FOKUS e-government-lab will support the procedure effectively and accompany our lab-partner Microsoft as a member of ECMA International with our know-how in implementing our recommendations.”

I would say that's clear. Except for the first sentence, which makes no sense. Microsoft isn't pushing its OOXML to lead to technological devlopment of ODF. I believe it would like to make it irrelevant. At best. Otherwise, it'd just extend ODF to do whatever it thinks it needs to do. But here's my question: how does Microsoft get its own partners to head all these committees? Why even bother to vote? If the game is rigged, why not just say, "It's a de facto standard. You have no choice. We're Microsoft. We don't care. We don't have to."

Now look at how my computer translates this paragraph from the heise article, right after it has detailed how pro-Microsoft entities were added to the panel:

During the actual tuning still the German Telekom and Google wanted to take part, that are to be spoken not well on the standardisation efforts of the Redmonder. Lobbyists of both companies were allowed however only as if non-be correct-entitle guests in the session to participate and their doubts forward carry. The log-on of the two enterprises took place too at short notice, so that their technical inclusion no more could have been ensured, justifies to Schuermann the exclusion of the right to vote and DIN refers to appropriate regulations with.

If that explanation makes sense to you, you might just be a Microsoft lab-partner. They asked to join too late. Ah! You see? It takes me back to Portugal's "the room is too small" decision to exclude IBM and Sun. Any old rule will do. By the way, they both voted no in Germany, where they signed up in time, as did the Foreign Office and the Ministry of the Interior, with comments.

Here's the paragraph that has me really wondering, first in German:

Schürmann selbst votierte für "Ja mit Kommentar", um keinen Lenkungsausschuss mehr einberufen zu müssen und das Verfahren nicht zu verzögern.

I am showing the German to be extra careful. And I asked Michael Schinagl to please translate that, as I didn't want to rely on a computer. He says a literal translation would be:

Schürmann himself voted for "Yes with comment", not to have to call for a steering committee and to avoid delay of the procedure.

His more natural translation is:

Mr. Schürmann voted to approve “with comments”, in order not to have to call up to the steering committee and avoid further delay.

So there is a method to this "approve with comments" madness, I gather.

And in case you are curious, even if the DIN committee was not, here's Google's position [PDF]:

***************************

Google's Position on OOXML as a Proposed ISO Standard

Introduction

Google is concerned about the potential adoption of Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) format as an ISO standard. Google supports open standards and the Open Document Format (ODF), an existing ISO standard that has been a driver for innovation. We do not think it is beneficial to introduce an alternative standard when the Open Document Format already meets the common definitions of an open standard, has received ISO approval and is in wide use around the world. Google's concerns about OOXML include, but are not limited to: • The limitations on the openness of OOXML format; • The lack of proper review as compared to other ISO standards; • The continued use of binary code tied to platform-specific features; and • Unclear licensing terms for third-party implementers. The following is a Q&A to help clarify Google's position on the ISO standardization of OOXML.

Aren't multiple document standards good?

We have PDF and HTML, so why not ODF and OOXML? Multiple standards are good, but only if they are designed to address different problems. HTML is a very simple mark-up language designed for rendering within browsers, while PDF is a display-only format designed for high-fidelity print output. ODF and OOXML are both designed as a format for editable documents. As such they both address the same problem and almost completely overlap. The current state of file formats for editable documents makes life very difficult for consumers and vendors of office productivity software, and is a looming disaster for long-term document storage. Having two mutually incompatible formats for editable documents will allow the current noninteroperable state of affairs to continue.

Microsoft has been arguing the OOXML is a good thing as it gives vendors and customers choice. Multiple incompatible standards are a bad thing for customer choice, as purchasers of Betamax video recorders discovered to their cost. Multiple implementations of a single standard are good for both the industry and for customers.

If Microsoft wishes to create a document format that is better able to address the problems of the many editable legacy documents created in their older proprietary formats Google welcomes them to help extend the existing ODF ISO standard, in order to add the capabilities they require. Allowing OOXML to become a parallel ISO standard will propagate the current legacy situation into what is supposed to be a solution to the problems of long-term document storage.

OOXML is a perfectly good ISO standard. Isn't this just complaining by other vendors?

In developing standards, as in other engineering processes, it is a bad idea to reinvent the wheel. The OOXML standard document is 6546 pages long. The ODF standard, which achieves the same goal, is only 867 pages. The reason for this is that ODF references other existing ISO standards for such things as date specifications, math formula markup and many other needs of an office document format standard. OOXML invents its own versions of these existing standards, which is unnecessary and complicates the final standard.

If ISO were to give OOXML with its 6546 pages the same level of review that other standards have seen, it would take 18 years (6576 days for 6546 pages) to achieve comparable levels of review to the existing ODF standard (871 days for 867 pages) which achieves the same purpose and is thus a good comparison.

Considering that OOXML has only received about 5.5% of the review that comparable standards have undergone, reports about inconsistencies, contradictions and missing information are hardly surprising.

Isn't this standard needed to support the millions of existing Microsoft Office documents?

OOXML is a brand new format, different from the existing .DOC, .XLS and .PPT formats that are widely used by Microsoft Office. In order to move to an XML-based format these documents will have to be translated anyway. There is no wide use of OOXML format documents on the Web. Counting the number of documents found by doing Web searches for different document types the older Microsoft Office formats dominate, but the second most widely used format is the existing ISO standard ODF. As translation is needed anyway it would make more sense to convert to ODF, the existing ISO standard for editable document types.

In addition, if OOXML were necessary to faithfully convert these legacy documents to an XML format, it would have to contain the complete specification of these older document formats. Without this OOXML would be incomplete in its descriptions for an ISO standard. No specifications for older document formats exist in the OOXML descriptions, and so any argument that OOXML is needed for their accurate translation is false. Such legacy documents may just as easily be translated to ODF (as can be seen in the way some existing ODF implementations handle the import of the legacy Microsoft Office file formats).

Doesn't OOXML already have wide industry adoption?

Many companies have announced they will support OOXML, and several have announced translators for the new formats. This is only to be expected, as Microsoft is a major vendor in the office automation space. Wide industry support doesn't necessarily make a good ISO standard, although it definitely helps. What matters more for a good interoperable standard is multiple implementations. On this score ODF is very well served, with around twelve different implementations of software that can read and write ODF files (from wikipedia). Most of the OOXML implementations are from partners of Microsoft who have contractual agreements to implement OOXML software.

Multiple independent implementations help a standard mature quicker and become more useful to its users. It fosters a range of software choices under different licensing models that allow products to be created and chosen whilst still faithfully adhering to the ISO standard.

Isn't OOXML safe to implement by anyone?

NB. This section is not legal advice from Google. For a full analysis of the OOXML licensing conditions, please consult a lawyer.

Microsoft has offered an Open Specification Promise covering OOXML which they claim would cover third party implementations of the standard. See http://www.microsoft.com/interop/osp/default.mspx. There is considerable legal uncertainty around the scope of this promise, which appears only to cover the exact version of the specification currently published, but not any future revisions or enhancements. The legal uncertainty surrounding the scope of this license grant weighs heavily against the propriety of ISO acceptance of the OOXML standard. The existing ODF ISO standard is covered by Sun's "OpenDocument Patent Statement," which does not suffer from these issues. See
http://www.oasis-open.org/ committees/office/ipr.php.


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