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An Open Letter on OOXML Happenings in India
Tuesday, June 03 2008 @ 05:24 AM EDT

The appeal filed by India against OOXML is not yet available, but you can get a pretty good idea of what it likely is about by reading this open letter, Finally, My open letter on OOXML happenings in India by Dr. Deepak B. Phatak, a member of the committee, written to members of the LITD 15 committee of BIS, India.

Among the issues Dr. Phatak raises are that OOXML is "not mature enough for acceptance as an ISO standard" yet; that there's no final draft available; the standard has been broken up into parts, and new conformance criteria introduced; and that the BRM meeting "failed in its basic objectives of resolution through technical discussion" since there was insufficient time to discuss most of the issues and in the end, most of the NBs abstained.

While we can't know if these are the issues in the appeal, it's as close to a hint as we can get until the appeal by India is released. And his letter presents a detailed view of his experiences working on OOXML, what happened at the BRM, and afterwards.

Anguish over mud slinging

A section of the letter is about Microsoft's efforts to get the No vote changed to a Yes, an effort that failed but which clearly left deep scars on Dr. Phatak, who describes the effort as a mud slinging campaign, for which Microsoft has apologized personally to him and others. However, he remains dissatisfied and asks Microsoft to apologize for what he views as slurs against IIT Bombay (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay).

Those of you with a taste for parody will enjoy the last part of the letter, where his anger at the company's behavior morphed into a parody mud-slinging back at Microsoft, using, he writes, their own techniques, in fact their own algorithm:

This hypothetical counter-complaint has been constructed using a formal but hypothetical ‘mudslinging algorithm’ originally (again hypothetically) developed by Microsoft. The algorithm is unpublished and is probably patented.

His point is that mud slinging is counterproductive. And his distress at being falsely accused is apparent. He is not as accustomed to Microsoft's tactics as we are in the US, I gather. And it's sad to read him write about his anguish over it. Here's a taste:

In conclusion, I will reiterate that my anguish, caused by Microsoft by slandering Individuals and organizations represented on committee LITD 15 of BIS, runs very very deep. I have requested Microsoft to immediately withdraw all such frivolous complaints and representations maligning colleagues on the committee. I have also requested Microsoft to formally apologize to my Institute for causing damage to its reputation. I await action from them in this regard. I am absolutely unable to tolerate the mudslinging on IIT Bombay. I believe the same holds for other colleagues.... In its attempt to get Indian ‘disapproval’ vote retracted and changed, Microsoft first tried to convince the committee. When it appeared that the committee may not agree for such a change, Microsoft made complaints to the governing ministries of some of the organizations as explained earlier, stating that people from their departments were not acting in national interest. When the bureaucratic leadership refused to make any alterations in the process of the duly constituted committee, they went to the political leadership. If this was limited to a request for change in the committee constitution, it can at least be understood, howsoever distasteful the method of allegations adopted by them may have been. But their objective was to get the Indian vote changed. Even after the committee deliberation on 20th March, they still persisted with their pressures at the highest levels of Indian leadership, this time very clearly articulating the main demand, that the Government should change the Indian disapproval vote, and persisting with the same representations which stated that people were not acting in national interests.

In doing this, Microsoft has clearly transgressed the behavioural boundaries for any foreign commercial entity. They were asking the Government of India to forget the well defined process, and override the decision so arrived at. Of course, the Government is sovereign, and it has the authority and responsibility to take decisions in the best interests of the nation. And, of course, the Indian leadership refused to intervene; perhaps finding no substance in the representation after it looked at all the details. ...

My greatest angst against Microsoft is in their arrogance in telling Indian government about Indian ‘national interest’, particularly at the highest levels of the leadership. One really wonders whether they even properly understand what a nation is.

Not every sovereign nation's government was as immune to such tactics as India. I'm looking at you, France.

Update: He quotes from a song, which seems to be reverberating in my mind two days later, so I decided to add it to the article:

A4. Concluding remarks

The following portion of an old song, recently recited by my friend George Mathew (who is MD of LIC) in a dinner get together, perhaps sums up the moral of this hypothetical exercise. This used to be my favorite in 1970s, as a very sobering reminder for good conduct.

Bhala kije bhala hoga,
Boora kije boora hoga;

Sajan re jhuth mat bolo,
Khuda ke pas jana hai;
Na hathi hai na ghoda hai,
wahan paidal hi jana hai;

[If you do good to others, good will happen to you.
If you do bad, then bad will happen to you.
Friend, please do not lie or use falsehood.
Remember that all of us have to depart one day on our journey to God.
Neither your elephant nor your horse will be available for that journey,
Each of us has to walk that distance]

For me, this is a reminder that wealth should be generated legally and ethically. Any falsehood used in the process would make it ‘bad’ wealth, all of which one has to leave behind anyway.

Here, though, is the section of the letter where he recounts the history of the committee's work on OOXML and how India reached the decision it did, which is the part that may indicate the issues behind the appeal, followed by some of his personal suggestions for what to do going forward:

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

In this particular case of OOXML, the view which emerged very early was that there is nothing wrong with multiple standards but any standard must satisfy two basic requirements. These are:

a) Openness, which means that standard can be implemented by independent multiple vendors without recourse to any proprietary information. In particular, there ought not to be any access or patent restriction. This is one way of encouraging competing products to be built. In any case, India does not recognize software patents.

b) Interoperability, which means a product conforming to this standard, must inter-operate with a product conforming to any existing standard (in this case ODF).

Our observations and subsequent actions were as follows:

i) It was noticed that OOXML has two objectives. One is to get in its fold all the legacy documents presently in Microsoft office proprietary format. Second is to ensure that the standard is forward looking and is able to enhance in coming years.

ii) It was felt that these two objectives, viz., backward compatibility and future extensibility are often at loggerheads. Thus utmost attention needs to be paid to each and every technical issue and its resolution.

iii) The list of technical objections raised was studied. A few meetings were held with Microsoft experts to understand their dispositions. We came to a conclusion that, from the original set of 200+ technical issues, some 80+ were still not addressed by the disposition. The consensus that emerged was that the standard could not be accepted as is, unless these are resolved satisfactorily. In the latter case, OOXML can be approved.

iv) This is the stand which was conveyed to committee in August 2007. IIT Bombay was indeed happy to note that this view was largely accepted. It was a moment of great satisfaction to us that Indian vote was arrived at unanimously, in contrast to that of most other countries of the world.

v) ISO reported in September 2007, that the OOXML standard has not succeeded in getting sufficient support as per ISO rules. ISO announced a Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva to be held in February.

vi) Our thinking was that many of the pending Indian concerns revolved primarily around free access to the proprietary binary formats, and around the worry on Microsoft patents for these. We communicated these aspects to Microsoft both independently, as also in the committee meetings.

vii) We have been very worried about the interoperability with ODF and the extensibility of the proposed standard. We were also concerned about the provision of a large number of deprecated features in OOXML proposal. Our view was that the backward compatibility is only useful to ensure that a legacy document with deprecated features can be read by a conforming implementation and can then be correctly migrated to the new standard, or to ODF through interoperability. While a number of other countries have a very large number of documents presently in Microsoft proprietary format, Indian situation is not comparable since most of the Indian documents are still in the paper form and would get digitized over the coming decade. We believed that going forward, India would benefit by having only the new features of OOXML in our documents, if one chooses to use products conforming to this standard eventually after it gets adopted by India. This requirement was expressed by us, along with others, as an important concern at the LITD 15 meeting held just before the BRM. Microsoft agreed to change its disposition to state that such deprecated features will NOT be present in documents, which are freshly created, including those, which are migrated.

viii) Dr. Sharat Chandran was nominated as a member of the Indian delegation by BIS for the BRM at Geneva. A special subgroup was constituted in India to try and resolve more of the remaining Indian comments. Since none of us from IIT could attend the meetings of the specially constituted subgroup held in Delhi, we suggested that Dr. Sharat Chandran will understand from Dr. Balasubramanian (who was also a member of the subgroup), the nature of issues still pending. We also suggested that Dr. Sharat Chandran should carefully note all points raised by other countries, and advice the delegation if any of those could additionally pose a concern from Indian point of view.

ix) The delegation reported the sad happening at BRM. Dr. Sharat Chandran’s feedback to us was that those few technical issues, which were discussed in the first two days, indeed were resolved to make the standard better, and the corresponding original dispositions were appropriately modified in several cases. He felt that if similar discussion was held for all the remaining points, the draft would have become much better through many more changes in the dispositions, and thus would have become technically acceptable. However, the decision to ‘resolve’ an unprecedented number of pending technical issues by a single vote without any technical discussion precluded any such possibility. This appeared to him to be completely out of tune with the basic BRM objective of ‘resolution through technical discussion’ and also against the principle of creating the largest consensus on technical issues. In particular, he observed that there was no chance for the remaining Indian concerns to be technically resolved, nor a chance for the Indian delegation to learn about other issues which could be relevant to India.

x) He agreed (and later all of us here concurred with him) on the principled stand taken by the Indian delegation to ‘disapprove’ the acceptance of these dispositions in the vote.

xi) In the meeting held on 13th March 2008, the delegation debriefed the committee on the BRM proceedings. In our final discussion at IIT Bombay, we concluded that:

a) BRM has failed in its basic objectives of resolution through technical discussion. Even in the vote, we noted that 4 P members had voted Yes, 2 O members also voted yes, 4 P members had voted No. We thus noticed that the majority to the resolution was provided by the 2 Yes votes registered by countries with O status. It was also noticed that that as many as 18 countries registered an ‘abstain’ vote, and 4 more countries refused to register any position. In our opinion, the ISO spirit of arriving at the 'largest possible agreement' was clearly violated. When as many as 22 countries participating in the BRM did not say both yes or no, and only 10 registered affirmative or negative positions, we could not conclude otherwise.

b) The entire standard is now restructured into multiple parts. New conformance criteria have been introduced for strict and transitional compliance. Even the scope is now changed.

c) There is no single document describing the standard that can be studied by anyone to arrive at proper understanding of the entire standard. In particular, from the information which is decipherable, it is evident that the Indian concerns are not taken care of.

d) The standard, as it is now, is thus not mature enough for acceptance as an ISO standard as of date. This was the opinion Dr. Sharat Chandran conveyed to the committee during the meeting held on 20th March 2008.

...

I have shared my anguish in this letter so far. But I also have to discharge my duty as a member of the committee. In the light of all that has transpired, I would like to submit the following for consideration of BIS for further decisions at the national level with regard to OOXML standard.

1) The normal ISO process is defined for achieving largest possible consensus on standards through very wide and thorough discussion. In my opinion, this spirit has been severely compromised in this fast track process for OOXML. The resulting standard has no clarity even on what it is, as there is no single document available describing the standard. Ordinarily, it does not matter if the final document release takes some time, since all the major issues are taken care of during very wide consultations, and issues which remain are rather mundane. In this case, a very large number of already known serious technical concerns posed by many NBs across the world have been pushed into the so called maintenance phase even before the standard is borne. The BRM vote itself, with as many as 22 out of a total of 32 NBs in attendance, neither saying 'Yes' nor saying 'No', reveals that there was no consensus at all. I believe that this is unprecedented. Stating this as objectionable, India should move the ISO for cancellation of the acceptance of OOXML as it stands now, asking that the standard should be put through the normal process rather than on fast track. I think the world body and all NBs can easily see that it was essentially lack of time which was responsible for so many concerns not being addressed. We must, of course, continue to critically examine the OOXML document as it emerges, to ensure that the technical issues are resolved....

4) Ordinarily, national technical standards are evolved in response to local needs. If there exist international standards, these are examined for their suitability and if found useful, are adopted by a nation almost on an 'as is' basis. This process simply cannot be applied for OOXML. We must wait till all our concerns are sorted out, which may take several months. For example, there is no statement on transitional features being definitely out for all migrated documents as required by us. If one goes by the vague statement on transitional features, that these will disappear from the standard 'sometime' in future, we may even have to wait for years before we can even touch the new standard in India....

Adopting a half baked standard, which is likely to continue to rapidly keep changing over a fairly long period will mean the following:

(i) Multiple implementations is an important desirable feature of any standard. This is what actually permits competition and helps reduce the cost to the end consumer. This is not very unlikely to happen as no vendor (other than Microsoft, of course) is likely to invest money, efforts, and time to play in a game where the goal-post is continuously and unpredictably shifting.

(ii) During this entire period of maturity and availability of multiple implementations, the Indian consumers adopting to use this standard will necessarily depend on only one vendor (Microsoft).

(iii) Additionally in order to produce documents which remain compliant with OOXML standard, the Indian consumers will have to keep migrating their documents produced just a few months or year earlier, to confirm to the 'final' standard which eventually evolves.


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