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New OOXML Scandal - A Leaked Email Surfaces in France - Updated: New Details from Norway
Friday, April 18 2008 @ 01:20 PM EDT

Le Monde Informatique and LeMagIT are reporting on a leaked email from Marc Meyer of the French government agency, DGME, which urges that OOXML be quickly added to the official list of formats that can be used by government entities, a document titled RGI, and then the finalized v1.0 of RGI be quickly published, in effect locking in OOXML, before the appeals process is completed. The email and the media reports indicate that the RGI was put on a back burner last October, when ODF was already on the list, and now, immediately after OOXML is approved, albeit controversially, by ISO but before the appeals process is complete, not to mention the format, Meyer urges it quickly be added to the list of acceptable formats, hence making it hard to remove OOXML from the list later, as a fait accompli.

Worse, the email indicates that work on the document was brought to a crawl to wait for ISO approval of OOXML. ODF was already on the list when work on RGI was brought to a standstill last October. There were suspicions that the slowdown was deliberate, and the email is giving legs to those suspicions.

It seems that politics has reared its ugly head, and just as happened in Masschusetts, questions are now being asked about behind-the-scenes Microsoft pressure.

Meyer is the project manager in charge of the RGI initiative [in French "Chef de service DGME/Développement de l'Administration Electronique"], of DGME (the French government agency tasked [PDF] with modernizing the French bureaucracy, which includes technical standards). Here's an article in French from 2006 explaining RGI.

ODF was chosen already, because it was already an ISO standard -- chosen but then the work on the RGI document [PDF; ODF mentioned on pages 30-32] inexplicably slowed to a crawl last October, or maybe more came to a standstill. Then the DGME withdrew its support for the ADELE [PDF] (ADministration En LignE) program. The ADELE site now redirects to a generic French government site list. The reports indicate that now questions are being asked, particularly after AFNOR affair, where the DGME representative and a colleague from the other French ministry DGE reportedly suddenly withdrew their opposition to OOXML, followed by France suddenly reversing its NO vote on OOXML and changing to Abstain.

I'm sure you can figure out what the advantage of the delay would be for OOXML or what the advantage to ODF would have been, had the choice been timely implemented. Even when technical groups choose ODF on clear merit grounds, it seems they simply are not allowed to follow through. Thou shalt use Microsoft. And what headaches are ahead for them! Here's a computer translation of the email:

"The project of RGI presented at the time of the last committee of the reference frames of October 12, 2007 had been put on standby, following the step engaged in the ISO by the ECMA concerning the OpenXML standard. This step having now succeeded, we held of it account and we wish to engage without delay the step of validation of the RGI, for a presentation of the project to set the numerical one of at the end of May 2008.

To which the report adds: "Here's what is clear: the RGI waited for OpenXML."

Reached for comment by our own Sean Daly, who speaks French, a representative of the DGME who did not wish to be identified would only say: "The work on the RGI is ongoing and is absolutely not completed".

That, of course, is not the same thing as denying the contents of the email. The only question is whether Meyer's email will be followed and when.

Sean tells me that you can think of the RGI as more or less the equivalent of Massachusett's ERTM: same goal, same struggle. And, I gather, same reason for the struggle. AFNOR, do you see what happens when you cave in when you know better? I know. We heard the reports of a Bill Gates phone call to Sarkozy. The silly part is that the whole world knows OOXML isn't done yet. Even Alex Brown, the convenor of the BRM and chosen to work on the committee trying to figure out how to finish it, calls it a baroque castle, with ghosts and secret passages and crumbling towers. I think one may assume, therefore, that if RGI suddenly lists such a standard, in its current state, it will have little to do with technical merit.

Meanwhile, PCInpact reports that Microsoft offered a special deal to all the ministries in France, and at least two ministries have accepted. I gather, if my French is up to this, that it's viewed as a kind of end run around the RGI, because the RGI states that all administration PCS must read and write all recommended standard formats on the list.

One of the journalists noted that there is still a difference between OOXML as approved and the format used by Microsoft Office, so to finalize the RGI with OOXML in it would be ridiculous -- nothing works with OOXML in its current state.

Incidentally, you may recall that ISO's recently published FAQ said that it isn't a bit unusual to have fast track items that are thousands of pages long, as OOXML was. Rob Weir hilariously bursts that bubble, and if you get statistical humor, you'll love it. The graphics are so funny.

If you are new to this story and not familiar with what happened in Massachusetts, Groklaw's permanent ODF/OOXML page can help you get up to speed. We covered it chronologically from January 2005 to today, and here are some documents from that sad struggle, where political pressure in the end blocked the technical group's decision to use ODF only, after Microsoft protested being excluded, and in the end Massachusetts caved and added OOXML to the acceptable list even before it was an ISO standard. If you want to see how pressure is brought to bear, just read through that list of links.

Update: There is now a first-person account by Steve Pepper, "The Norway Vote - What Really Happened" and it's even worse than we heard:

I was the Chairman of the Norwegian mirror committee for SC34 (K185) for 13 years until resigning a couple of weeks ago in protest against Standard Norway’s decision to vote Yes. On the other hand, I was present throughout the whole process and have more first-hand knowledge of what went on than anyone (excepting two employees of Standard Norway). Here I describe the fateful meeting on Friday March 28. More background will follow.

The meeting started at 10 and we spent an hour on other business before proceeding to the main agenda item: reviewing Ecma’s responses to the comments that accompanied our No vote in the August DIS ballot. I led the first part of the meeting and then handed over to the VP of Standard Norway for the last part, as I had done on previous occasions when OOXML was under discussion.

K185 meeting, Friday March 28 2008There were nearly 30 people present: three employees of Standard Norway (the VP, the committee secretary, and the JTC1 representative); the rest were technical experts. The VP opened by declaring that our only purpose was to discuss the comment responses and decide whether they had been addressed to our satisfaction. If so, Norway’s vote would change from No to Yes. I suggested that we should also take account of changes made at the BRM and base our decision on a total assessment. The VP did not disagree, but insisted that the discussion should focus on the comments. He also made it clear that the goal was to achieve consensus and that there would not be any voting.

The next four hours were spent going through the 12 comments submitted by Norway. My tally of the final result was as follows:

Consensus that the comment had been satisfactorily resolved: 2 comments.

Consensus that the comment had not been satisfactorily resolved: 2 comments.

No consensus that the comment had been satisfactorily resolved: 8 comments.

Regarding those last 8 comments, there was a roughly 80/20 split between those who were dissatisfied and those who were satisfied. (Since there was no voting, this is just an estimate, but it’s pretty accurate.) There was not even a shadow of consensus that the comments as a whole had been satisfactorily addressed and I naturally assumed the No vote would stand.

But lo… at this point, the “rules” were changed. The VP asserted that “Ecma has clearly made steps in the right direction.” The most important thing now was to ensure that OOXML came under ISO’s control so that it could be “further improved”. However, the committee was not allowed to discuss this.

The VP thereupon declared that there was no consensus, so the decision would be taken by Standard Norway.

Halfway through the proceedings, a committee member had asked for (and received) assurance that the Chairman would take part in the final decision, as he had for the DIS vote back in August. It now transpired that the BRM participants had also been invited to stay behind. 23 people were therefore dismissed and we were down to seven. In addition to Standard Norway’s three, there were four “experts”: Microsoft Norway’s chief lobbyist, a guy from StatoilHydro (national oil company; big MS Office user), a K185 old-timer, and me. In one fell swoop the balance of forces had changed from 80/20 to 50/50 and the remaining experts discussed back and forth for 20 minutes or so without reaching any agreement.

The VP thereupon declared that there was still no consensus, so the decision would be taken by Standard Norway.

The experts were dismissed and the VP asked the opinion of the Secretary (who said “Yes”) and the JTC1 rep (who said “No”).

The VP thereupon declared that there was still no consensus, so the decision would be taken by him.

And his decision was to vote Yes.

So this one bureaucrat, a man who by his own admission had no understanding of the technical issues, had chosen to ignore the advice of his Chairman, of 80% of his technical experts, and of 100% of the K185 old-timers. For the Chairman, only one course of action was possible.

That’s the story.

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