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About maintenance of MSOOXML should it become an ISO standard... and some ideas - Updated
Thursday, December 06 2007 @ 02:29 PM EST

Rob Weir has discovered something so awful about the maintenance of MSOOXML, should it become an ISO standard, I wanted to make sure everyone knows about it, and then I have some projects to tell you about that are trying to respond to Microsoft's gaming of the ISO approval process.

In Weir's article, " Bait and Switch", he informs us that Microsoft is going back on public promises regarding control of the standard, should it be approved, promises which Ecma echoed [PDF]. You can't take your eyes off Microsoft for even a minute, can you?

Here's part of what Weir writes:

So much for the promises. What makes this story worthy of a blog post is that we now know that, as these promises were be made to NB's, at that same time Ecma was planning something that contradicted their public assurances. Ecma's "Proposal for a Joint Maintenance Plan" [pdf] outlines quite a different vision for how OOXML will be maintained.

A summary of the proposed terms:

  • OOXML remains under Ecma (Microsoft) control under Ecma IPR policy.
  • Ecma TC45 will accept a liaison from JTC1/SC34 who can participate on maintenance activities and only maintenance activities.
  • Similarly, Ecma TC45 documents and email archives will be made available to the liaison (and through him a set of technical experts), but only the documents and emails related to maintenance.
  • No mention of voting rights for the liaison or the experts, so I must assume that normal Ecma rules apply -- only Ecma members can vote.
  • Future revisions of OOXML advance immediately to "Stage" 4" of the ISO process, essentially enshrining the idea that future versions will given fast-track treatment
A critical point to note is that "maintenance" in ISO terms is not the same as what the average software engineer thinks of as "maintenance". The work of producing new features or enhancements is not maintenance. The act of creating OOXML 1.1 or OOXML 2.0 is not maintenance. What is maintenance is the publication of errata documents for OOXML 1.0, a task that must be completed within 3 years.

Bait and switch indeed. Now, I'm a simple soul, so I could well be missing something, but it looks to me like at February's meeting, any unresolved technical issues can have Microsoft promising to fix the issue, hence winning approval, after which it, through, Ecma, controls how and when it is deemed "fixed", since voting is by rubber stamp Ecma.

Uh oh.

Does that sound like a good plan to you? Microsoft controls maintenance of its own standard? That may not lead to true interoperability, methinks.

And significantly, some voted for MSOOXML precisely *because* Microsoft promised that if approved, MSOOXML would *not* be under its control. Here's just one of a series of promises made by Microsoft representatives that Weir has collected:

For example, John Scholes writes of a Microsoft commitment made at an NCC file format debate held in London in July:
Would the maintenance of the standard be carried out by Ecma (assuming OpenXML became an ISO/IEC standard) or would it be carried out by JTC1? No question, JTC1. But would the detail be delegated to Ecma? No, it would all be beyond MSí control in JTC1. Well at this point there was apparently some sotto voce discussion between Stephen and Stijn, followed by a little backtracking, but it came across loud and clear in subsequent discussions in the margins that Stephen and Jerry believed this was for real. MS was handing over control of OpenXML to JTC1 (or trying to).
I participated in this debate as well and can confirm, that it occurred exactly as John relates. I even asked a follow-up question to make sure that I didn't misunderstand what Microsoft was saying. They were adamant. ISO would control OOXML.

The bottom line is, while Microsoft invents its own proprietary standards process, as I'd call it, it keeps moving forward because everyone else continues to follow the detailed rules and procedures of the ISO process with the laughable results that we have seen with the new P members lined up for Microsoft not bothering to vote on anything else and hence making it hard for committees to do their work. As often seems to happen, everyone must suffer so Microsoft can get what it wants. Convenor Martin Bryan, in his "Working Group Status Report" prepared to report on WG1 activity for the December 2007 Meeting of ISO/IEC JTC1/SC34/WG1 in Kyoto:

The influx of P members whose only interest is the fast-tracking of ECMA 376 as ISO 29500 has led to the failure of a number of key ballots. Though P members are required to vote, 50% of our current members, and some 66% of our new members, blatantly ignore this rule despite weekly email reminders and reminders on our website. As ISO require at least 50% of P members to vote before they start to count the votes we have had to reballot standards that should have been passed and completed their publication stages at Kyoto. This delay will mean that these standards will appear on the list of WG1 standards that have not been produced within the time limits set by ISO, despite our best efforts.

He writes that ISO is becoming a laughing stock in IT circles and suggests standards that are outstanding be sent over to OASIS.

That's one idea. Any others? Since the FOSS side won't game the rules, is there a way to play by the rules and still be effective? Or is it time to change the process to deal with gamers? Weir has a proposal, or more accurately highlights a proposal to set up a new working group in SC34 for "Office Information Languages" maintenance.

I am focused more short-term issues, like February's meeting and Ecma's secretive list of allegedly "resolved" comments, by them, natch. If you'd like to work on a project related to that just getting started, I'd like you to either email me or leave a comment on this article, indicating your interest in working on technical comments.

Others are noticing how things are going also, and there are a couple of other projects going on that you might like to know about. Norbert Bellow has set up a page for those interested in working on a "problem document" to provide that he hopes the February group will consider:

Since it is clear from preliminary discussions that OOXML does not fulfil's criteria for an open standard, will prepare a "problem report" document explaining the main problems why from the perspective of's criteria, OOXML cannot be accepted as an open standard, and should not be approved as an "international standard". This "problem report" document should be ready by mid-February 2008 so that it can help guide the discussions at the "Ballot Resolution Meeting" to focusing on the most important questions, and so that after "Ballot Resolution Meeting" the "problem report" can assist the national standardization organizations in evaluating whether or not the important issues have been appropriately resolved.

Whether they would consider it, I have no idea. But the public would at least be informed. And you already know about Here's another site that has organized all the comments, as a cross-check.

But the project I have in mind and would like to know about your interest in helping with has to do with Ecma's "resolved comments". So please let me know if you'd like to help. And in the interests of long-term educational goals to spur creative thinking, here's a Supreme Court decision about some secretly misusing a standards process to impact the competition negatively, Allied Tube & Conduit Corp. v. Indian Head, Inc., that you might enjoy reading. Here's one bit of the ruling:

(c) Unlike the publicity campaign to influence legislation in Noerr, petitioner's activity did not take place in the open political arena, where partisanship is the hallmark of decisionmaking, but took place within the confines of a private standard-setting process. The validity of petitioner's efforts to influence the Code is not established, without more, by petitioner's literal compliance with the Association's rules, for the hope of the Code's procompetitive benefits depends upon the existence of safeguards sufficient to prevent the standard-setting process from being biased by members with economic interests in restraining competition. An association cannot validate the anticompetitive activities of its members simply by adopting rules that fail to provide such safeguards. At least where, as here, an economically interested party exercises decisionmaking authority in formulating a product standard for a private association that comprises market participants, that party enjoys no Noerr immunity from any antitrust liability flowing from the effect the standard has of its own force in the marketplace.

The American Antitrust Institute explains what Noerr immunity means, as does The 'Lectric Law Library's Lexicon. If you wish to learn more, here's a book, IP and Antitrust, on Google Books that delves into the subject about as deeply as you are likely to want to go. You'd have to find it in a bookstore or at a library to read it. And some of you might find this paper, RIAA lawsuits and Noerr-Pennington Immunity, by Catherine Gellis, of interest. Here's the abstract:

This paper considers whether the voluminous RIAA filesharing litigation would be entitled to Noerr-Pennington Immunity if it otherwise ran afoul of antitrust law, ultimately concluding that, under the Sham Exception to the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, it would not.

Isn't law fascinating? Hopefully some FOSS-friendly lawyers are getting a PhD on the side in the subject. I have no doubt that every move Microsoft makes is vetted by their lawyers first, but as we've learned from the SCO debacle, that doesn't mean they are right.


Here's more info on the project I am interested in, so you can decide if you are interested too:

The New Zealand Open Source Society is participating in the next round of Standard New Zealand's review of the Microsoft/ECMA responses to ISO's NB comments for OOXML. You may recall Standards NZ voted "No - with comments" with regards to the proposed standard earlier in the year.

Standards NZ will be participating in ISO Ballot Resolution Meeting to be held in February next year.

At this stage of the ISO process the NZOSS would like to invite any technically and legally minded people in the free and open source communities to review ECMA responses: to New Zealand comments or to comments that might affect New Zealand interests.

We are allowed to mirror responses that fulfill this criteria, and we have set up a site with this ECMA content for invitees to review and a mailing list for these people to hold discussions.

They say that many eyes make bugs shallow, so let's apply Open Source motto that to OOXML. Please email Matthew Cruikshank (ecma-reviewer at with your full name if you wish to be involved.

Many thanks for your help

Don Christie

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