Fallout from Office Open XML Vote Continues

Work in the ISO/IEC committee that addresses document formats has come to a complete halt.

The fallout from the events leading up to the recent vote on whether or not to approve Microsofts Office Open XML documents format as an ISO standard continues unabated, more than a month after the software maker conceded it had lost that vote.

Work in SC 34, the committee within the ISO/IECs Joint Technical Committee 1 that addresses document formats and which has a constant stream of standards under active consideration and balloting, has come to a complete halt.

The work stoppage is being attributed to the fact that, after the increase in voting members, known as P members, of SC 34 in the run-up to the ballot on Microsofts Office OOXML (Open Office XML) submission to the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission, those newly minted voting members have not participated in any of the SC 34 member votes since the OOXML vote.

"One of the more egregious behaviors observed in the recent vote on OOXML was the sudden and last-minute surge to join not only various National Bodies just before they voted on OOXML, but also the relevant committee of ISO/IEC for the same purpose," Andy Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP, said in a post on his Standards blog.

An increasing number of countries joined SC 34 at the Observer (O) level during the voting period and then, in the final weeks and days before the voting closed, many of these new members as well as many longer-term members suddenly upgraded their status to Principal (P) membership, thereby gaining greater influence in the final vote under the complex rules under which the committee operates, he said.

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Read more here about why Office Open XML is down, but not out.

"As such, the work of this very important committee, in the words of its chair, has ground to a halt. In fact, not a single vote has achieved sufficient participation to pass—other than the OOXML vote—since the new members arrived," Updegrove said.

The committees rules state that at least 50 percent of the voting members must participate in order for a standard to move on to the next step in the process of being adopted. All that voting members need to do to be seen as participating is to cast an abstention, but the new P members have failed to even do that, Updegrove said.

"SC 34 is a vital committee for the IT industry, with many important existing and potential standards under its care," he said.

This situation underlines the vulnerability of the traditional standard-setting process to those who want to manipulate the rules, which are based on the assumption that participants are acting in good faith, he said.

"The rules are also biased toward making participation easy, in order to allow everyone affected by standards to have a voice in their creation. As standards become ever more important to vendors as well as to the rest of the world, it appears that those rules will need to be overhauled," Updegrove said.

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Microsoft has accused IBM of limiting choice for interoperability and standards. Read more here.

Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards at IBM, in Somers, N.Y., agrees, saying that it is now clear that things have to change.

"There were many things fundamentally wrong with how OOXML entered the standards process, was propped up and pushed forward, and just never seemed to go away even in the face of withering analysis and criticism," he said in a blog post.

That experience should also be used as an example to ensure that the same thing never happens again. "I think we need a fundamental discussion among those committed to improving and perhaps reforming the various standards processes around the world. There is much right in the standards world, and there are best practices to be collected and more broadly practiced," he said.

But, at the same time, there are inconsistencies, unbalanced influence and a glaring lack of transparency in some other important efforts, he said.

For its part, Microsoft said that the decision to take part in the ISO standards process was one that sat with each of the National Bodies, and that they were best equipped to discuss the status of their engagement.

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Jason Brooks says no ISO for Microsoft means little. Click here to read more.

"Everyone should understand that participation should not be discouraged among those who want a seat at the table. And those who commit their involvement need to be able to take on the associated responsibility. We all have to understand that in most cases this may not be a switch they can flip overnight, and need to be supportive of them as they work to put the necessary resources in place," a company spokesperson told eWEEK.

Microsoft has been vocal about its encouragement of those who have chosen to take a more active role in the process, as it feels strongly that the new voices that have come forward to take part in the stewardship of the specification will ultimately benefit the resulting formats and the customers, developers and governments that use them, the spokesperson said.

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