Tuesday, February 20 2007 @ 01:00 AM CST
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
There's an old saying that pops up in a number of cultures that begins something like this: "When the elephants dance…"
In Africa, the proverb ends, "it is the grass that gets crushed." Down Texas way, it starts and ends a bit differently, and goes as follows: "When the elephants dance in the hen yard, the chickens get out of the way." Either way, it means the same thing: when the big guys start mixing it up, the quality of life for the smaller folk starts to deteriorate. And so it has proven lately for the traditionally technical, mostly quiet, world of ISO/IEC standards adoption.
Usually, but not always, representatives of national bodies can go about their business without too much fear of being molested, much less trampled. But when the economic stakes are high enough, standards committee members can become the subject of more attention than they wish, and start to feel like citizens of Iowa during a presidential year.
How bad can it get? Apparently pretty bad, according to the South African national body, which thinks that the Publicly Available Specification (PAS) avenue to ISO/IEC adoption is being abused. After being apparently subjected to the lobbying efforts of camps pro and con through both the ODF and now the OOXML adoption process, they have become down right testy.
The following is the verbatim text of National Body Contribution ISO/IEC JTC 1 N 8494, titled South Africa Comments on the PAS Process, and dated February 2, 2007:
South Africa is concerned about what seems to be a growing number of standards submitted under the PAS process that, although publically [sic] available, do not seem to have any measure of regional or even national consensus. These therefore tend not to have been referred to any of the JTC 1 sub-committees, and have obviously not been discussed at [sub-committee] level.
Our experience is that the result of this is then a round of intense lobbying by various other stakeholders for us to vote negatively on the PAS. Often these other groups take the trouble to compile a list of contradictions that are also widely distributed in order to justify the request for the negative vote.
A recent example is the proposed PAS on Open XML/ODF.
It is our opinion that the submission of such "standards" directly to JTC 1 via the PAS route, where the standard has not been discussed within the relevant SC, was never the intention of the PAS System. The fact that some consortium has published a document that they refer to as a standard does not automatically imply that it has any sort of widespread industry acceptance. The fact that the publisher might claim international usage or acceptance is not longer a valid reason in these days of large multinationals, and the SABS [South African Bureau of Standards] has previously been approached by local branches of multinationals to vote in support of such PAS submissions, even if we have no local industry involvement or membership in the appropriate JTC 1 SC.
As result of this, South Africa will tend to vote negatively on all future PAS submissions to JTC 1 where they have not been appropriate SC. We would like to ensure that proper consideration be given to the PAS by technical experts. If the standard is indeed well known within the industry then this process might be very short.
This will be a change from our previous tendency to 'abstain' where we had no direct knowledge of the submission.
What should we read from this complaint, besides the evident unhappiness? First, let's consider whether ODF and OOXML should be tarred by the same brush. To start with, the two specifications didn't both technically come in by the same door. ODF did indeed get process through the PAS process, while OOXML came in through the "Fast Track" door. The PAS process is intended to allow standards that have not been created through the accredited standards development process, but that have received wide adoption, to achieve global recognition through the ISO/IEC system. The Fast Track process, in contrast, is an historical artifact of Ecma lobbying years ago for, and receiving, special status with ISO and IEC as a "Class A Liaison," which allows it to submit its standards directly to ISO/IEC. Ecma creates specifications based on products, but those products need not in fact have actually been released into the marketplace.
Which brings us to the South African concern with untested, unanalyzed standards being thrust before it. In the case of ODF, there were already compliant products – many of them – that were available in the marketplace, in both proprietary and open source versions, at the time that JTC1 began its review. In the case of OOXML, there was not even one compliant product available at the time that the specification was approved by Ecma and submitted to JTC1 – Office 2007 had not yet been released. And now that it has, it will be a long time, if ever, before another product is based solely upon it, as compared to simply interfacing with it.
Be that as it may, the South African message is not at all a happy commentary. At it's request, the topic of non-accredited submissions is scheduled for discussion at the March 2007 JTC 1 Ad Hoc on Directives meeting, and it will be interesting to see what action, if any, the grass (or chickens, as you will) may be able to obtain before the elephants next waltz in their direction.