IBM Open-Source Expert Criticizes Standards Process

Any of the ISO and IEC national bodies can lodge a formal appeal over the next two months, before the Office Open XML standard is published.

Criticism and calls for an investigation have come close on the heels of the formal announcement that Microsoft's Office Open XML file formats had received the necessary number of votes for approval as an ISO/IEC international standard.

In a statement released April 2, the ISO (International Standards Organization) and IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) said 75 percent of the participating Joint Technical Committee members cast positive votes, with just 14 percent of the total national member body votes being negative.

Approval required at least 66.66 percent of the votes cast by national bodies to be positive, and no more than 25 percent of the total number of ISO/IEC national body votes cast to be negative. "These criteria have now been met," the statement said.

This followed the confirmation April 1 by standards organization Ecma International that the ISO and IEC had approved the Office Open XML File Format as an international standard.

Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards for IBM and one of the harshest critics of the Open XML format, conceded that enough countries had changed their votes from the September ballot to allow the specification to move forward into the publication preparation phase.

"So is that it? Of course not. The process of international standards-making has been laid bare for all to examine. People now have some sense that not all standards are created by a community of independent stakeholders, as some people may have previously assumed," Sutor said in a blog post.

Furthermore, "The lack of transparency, the ability to see who voted and why, leads to less understanding and accountability," Sutor wrote.

Publication of the standard is still two months away, and any of the ISO/IEC national bodies can lodge a formal appeal during this time.

Norway appears the most likely member to lodge an appeal, given that the chairman of the Norwegian standards committee responsible for evaluating Office Open XML has sent ISO a letter asking for its "yes" vote to be suspended pending a Norwegian governmental investigation into why the country's vote was changed.

In his blog, Sutor wrote that the process had also shown that there is no way to put the brakes on pushing the wrong standards though the existing processes; that politics, and not just standards politics, has fully entered the process. There is also a lack of balance that comes from having a body of independent people considering a standard rather than just a majority of business partners, he wrote.

"I believe that thousands of motivated yet pragmatic people will now move on to fix the systemic issues I've identified, with fresh evidence of why it is necessary. There are now, as there have always been, much bigger issues than Office Open XML itself. For that reason, we are still in the early phases of the worldwide movement to true open standards," he said.

True openness would mean that the best technology for all wins, and that the process was clean, visible and incorruptible, he wrote.

"Openness must be earned. I think that's worth fighting for. There has been tremendous progress and it's happened far faster and wider than most people ever imagined possible," Sutor wrote. "While fully cognizant of these current results, I'm energized to take the bigger fight for openness to the next level with the thousands of individuals who are now convinced that the standards system needs fixing, and soon."