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More Irregularities in the OOXML ISO Process Surface
Monday, August 27 2007 @ 11:54 AM EDT

Rob Weir is reporting some very disturbing news about shenanigans in the OOXML ISO process:
I just received an email from someone in a national standards committee considering the OOXML ballot, concerning false information given to his committee which suggested the Sept. 2nd ballot deadline was not real, that they actually had 30 more days to decide. I'm not going to name names in this post, but I will say that this isn't the first note I've received regarding such tactics.

He lists several more, and he asks that you tell him about anything not on the list already.

Here's his list:

Some of the other ploys I've heard of include:
  • In the 30-day contradiction period, one NB was told that the stated deadline from ISO had been extended and that they actually had two more weeks to debate before sending in their response. If they had listened to this advice, this NB would have missed the deadline and their comments would have been disregarded.
  • Another NB was told that they were not allowed to vote in the 5-month ballot because they had not participated in the contradiction period. This is totally false and has no basis in JTC1 Directives or past practice. Luckily this NB decided to check the facts for themselves.
  • Several NB's were told that JTC1 had resolved all contradiction concerns with OOXML and that these issues therefore cannot be raised again in the 5-month ballot. This is utterly false. No one at JTC1 has made such a determination.
  • Several NB's have been asked not to submit comments to JTC1 at all, but to send them directly to Ecma. (Yeah, right. Just sign your absentee ballot and give it to me. I'll make sure it gets in the mail)
  • Many NB's are being asked to throw away their right to a conditional approval position by voting Approval on a specification they they believe is full of defects that must be fixed, even though JTC1 Directives clearly states that "Conditional approval should be submitted as a disapproval vote."
  • Many NB's are being persuaded to vote Approval with the promise that all of their comments will be "addressed at the BRM" without explaining that "addressing a comment" may entail little more than entering it in a Disposition of Comments Reports with the remark "No action taken".

Is that not sad? What a revolting picture we've gotten of the standards process. If you see anything like this or any other irregularities, Weir asks that you post a comment on his article, which implies to me that someone may just be thinking of challenging such activities:

I'm expecting that such shenanigans are only going to increase as we go into the final week of this 5-month ballot. So I ask you all to remain vigilant. If you see anything like the above happening, then please post a comment. If you feel like you've been tricked into not voting, or voting for something that you didn't really agree with, then remember that JTC1 allows an NB to change their vote up until Sept. 2nd. No vote is final until then. If you hear something that seems unusual or a departure from normal practice, then question it. And don't take my word for it either. If you need an official answer, shoot off an email to the JTC1 Secretariat and the ISO Secretary General.

I'm not sure shenanigans is quite a big enough word, legally, to describe such things. Norway, I have learned, will abstain, but how it got to that result is simply appalling. If you read about what happened there in that article, "OOXML in Norway: The haywire process," your jaw will simply drop. I do think there is something the matter with the ISO process if this is how it works.

The article is quite interesting though, quite aside from the committee chair ramming OOXML through by hook or by crook (yes, another one -- in Norway, the vote has to be by consensus, and if there isn't any, and there wasn't, then the chair decides), because it provides Sun's explanation for the US vote:

I had read the essay by Jon Bosak (SUN Microsystems) on why SUN voted as it did in the US. He lays out a very different strategy. His view is that the battle is lost to completely reject OOXML as an ISO standard. ISO can only reject it with comments, and that is equivalent to giving Microsoft a todo-list on how to fix the draft so as to get it approved. Microsoft has sufficient manpower to easily tackle that.

Most of us had missed what Mr. Bosak saw: OOXML promises interoperability with earlier closed binary formats (the Word Doc, older Excel file formats etc.). But it doesn’t deliver. How on earth could someone be able to convert old binary files to the new format without having the specification of the old formats and a mapping to OOXML. If you are to translate some text from Chinese to English, it doesn’t much help to only know English.

Now here is where you can tell the old hound from the little puppy (me being the puppy). Jon Bosak gets Microsoft to admit that the interoperability with legacy documents are only marketing speech. He further gets an agreement in the comments to suggest an amendment:

DIS 29500 be amended to include a reference to a mapping from the Microsoft Office 97 - 2003 formats, to OOXML.

By forcing Microsoft to comply with their very own promise in the standard, he puts pressure on them to release a full mapping of the old legacy formats to OOXML. By this he gains market access for SUN and everyone else....

During the meeting, Steve Pepper suggested that OOXML be split into two distinct standards - one for backward compatibility with legacy formats and one modern standard catering for current and future document needs. I have never heard that idea before. It is very interesting as Microsoft’s best argument for OOXML not contradicting ODF is that it offers the interoperability with old binary formats. To pull those parts out and crafting a separate legacy interoperable standard would give the IT world real value. The rest should be used as input to improve the existing ISO 26300 (ODF). That to me seems the best of all solutions.

He also reports what Mark Shuttleworth and Andrew Updegrove mentioned already, that there are suddenly a bunch of countries lining up to be P Countries, so they can vote. Guess which way?

Votes are cast by the 31 Participant members of ISO’s Standards Committee #34. DIS 29500 needs at least a two thirds positive majority to be accepted. With Microsoft and their partners busy in every national committee, and as new and rather curious were countries added to the list of P-members (the Ivory Coast…), they just might pull this off. If not, they will come back and try again. And again. And again. Resistance is futile. If you so believe.

Shuttleworth suggested everyone contact their ISO committee. A lot of people in Norway did. In fact, every comment was negative. And not a single comment made it through the chair's process:

The meeting started out with the Vice President of Standard Norge trying to lay down the rules of the game: We are here to go through the documents with comments to the standard and only those comments that we agree on will be passed on to ISO. He took up the first point (mine) and asked: “Are there any disagreement to this point?“. Unsurprisingly, a lady from Microsoft replied “We disagree“. He went on “Ok, so we have a disagreement on this point” and was ready to move on to the next. I and many with me dropped our jaws. “Are you seriously telling us that if Microsoft here says no to a point, it’s pulled from the list?“. “Yes, that is how the process works“. “And they can do that without even giving an explanation as to why they don’t agree?“.

After some back and forth on this, Microsoft was forced to at least give an explanation as to why they say no. But when they came up with an unfounded reason, it was not allowed to challenge it as that would make it impossible to get through the 45 points in two hours. They could simply manufacture a reason and the point was culled. Much because the VP could not possibly know if the reason given was valid or not - he had no knowledge of the standard. Or XML. Or file formats.

Now sit down and grab hold of your chair: He is the one deciding what Norway will vote in the case of no consensus in the committee!

He seems to be an excellent VP. But the process needs someone in the know....

I objected to the fact that Microsoft had Liberum Veto. But my objections did not change the process. It wasn’t until Håkon Wium Lie (the father of CSS) became aggravated enough and pressured the VP on the point of removing comments that Microsoft disagreed with. He pulled no punches and the VP then said that “No, they will not be removed, but rather softened, perhaps“. He was making it up as he went along.

The farce kept on for about 4½ hours. An interesting exercise leading to a few observations:

* The standards process in Norway needs an overhaul. The process is not suitable to handle disagreements.

* This may not be news, but Microsoft will label opposition as “religious” to discredit arguments.

* I should put more trust in old hounds.

So, there you have it. Norway. Another cynical exercise, where a standard no one has yet implemented (the article calls it a "theoretical exercise") and many say won't be implementable by anyone but Microsoft, and maybe not even by Microsoft, and that has many technical problems that need fixing first, gets through anyway. I hope the process that chose the standard for electrical outlets wasn't like this. People could get killed.

Let's move on to New Zealand. Here are some notes from a participant in the recent meeting in New Zealand, where again the suggestion is made that there really needs to be one standard:

Harmonizing the Formats

I think this should be the end goal.

It was suggested that this would create a 3rd format. It's not about creating a 3rd format because of course this harmonized format would become the new ODF. It would be about removing unnecessary and pointless differences between ODF and OOXML and making it easier for me (or anyone) to develop with office suites.

My presentation explained ECMAs given reasons for believing that they are too different but I hope it was clear to everyone that page breaks, table handling, and cell styles aren't any significant technical problem (Gray also mentioned the "mixed content model" as a reason why they can't be merged -- this is a data modelling issue unrelated to any feature set and so it doesn't affect harmonizing the formats as I understand it).

Also there'd be a lot more software to choose from when it's not such a divisive market.

Technically it can be done and many others in the XML and document community think so too. The co-creator of XML itself, Tim Bray says so and so do people from Microsoft such as Alan Yates. We even heard from Gray that it could take 2 years. It could easily take that amount of time to fix the existing problems in OOXML.

So that's the latest from the OOXML front. Like picking up a rock.

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