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Thursday, August 25 2016 @ 03:15 PM CDT

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Why the OOXML Vote Still Matters: A Proposal to Recognize the Need for “Civil ICT Standards”

OpenDocument and OOXML

This rather long essay is in one sense a reply to the open letter recently released by Patrick Durusau, in which he suggested that it was time to acknowledge progress made and adopt OOXML.  But it is also an explanation of why I have for the first time in my career become personally involved in supporting a standard.  The reason is that I believe that we are at a watershed in public standards policy, and that there is much more at stake than ODF and OOXML.  In this essay, I explain why I think we need to recognize the existence and vital importance of what I call “Civil ICT Standards,” and why more than simple technical compromises are needed to create them in order to protect our “Civil ICT Rights.”


As I write this entry, hundreds of people from around the world are converging on Geneva, Switzerland.  120 will meet behind closed doors to hold the final collaborative discussions that will determine whether OOXML will become an ISO/IEC standard.  When their work is complete, not everyone will be pleased with the changes agreed upon, but all will acknowledge that the specification that eventually emerges will be much improved from the version that was originally submitted to Ecma two years ago.

Most will also agree that Microsoft’s customers and independent software vendors (ISVs) will be far better off with OOXML publicly available than they would if Microsoft had not offered the specification up at all.

To reach this final draft, hundreds of standards professionals in many nations have spent a great deal of time and effort, including many at Microsoft.  And while Microsoft, working with Ecma, has not agreed to all of the changes that have been requested, my impression is that it has agreed to many that will, if implemented by Microsoft, require a substantial amount of work and technical compromise on its part.  

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Microsoft Makes Major "Openness" Announcement on Eve of BRM (Updated)

OpenDocument and OOXML

Microsoft has just made a major announcement relating to its core products and involving the degree and manner in which it will make the details of those products available to developers.  The importance of the announcement was underlined by those that were brought together for the press event at which the decisions were announced:  chief executive Steve Ballmer, chief software architect Ray Ozzie, senior vice president of the server and tools business Bob Muglia, and Brad Smith, the senior vice president and general counsel for legal and corporate affairs.

At first glance, this appears to be an important decision by Microsoft indicating a greater willingness to be both open and cooperative.  There are a number of promises in the announcement that I like, including the commitment to publish a great deal of material on the Web, as well as the freedom that will be offered to developers to take certain actions without the necessity of first obtaining a license.  However, I have not had the opportunity to read any of the supporting details, and those details will be extremely significant, especially as regards the open source community, where subtle differences in legal terms can permit use under some open source licenses, but not others.

Similarly, with respect to ODF, it will be important to see what kind of plug ins are made available,  how they may be deployed, and also how effective (or ineffective) those translators may be.  If they are not easy for individual Office users to install, or if their results are less than satisfactory, then this promise will sound hopeful but deliver little.  I am disappointed that the press release does not, as I read it, indicate that Microsoft will ship Office with a "save to" ODF option already installed.  This means that ODF will continue to be virtually the only important document format that Office will not support "out of the box."

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EU Initiates Investigation Against Microsoft OOXML Push

OpenDocument and OOXML

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that EU regulators have announced a third investigation into Microsoft's conduct on the desktop.  This latest action demonstrates that while the EU has settled the case against Microsoft that ran for almost a decade, it remains as suspicious as ever regarding the software vendor's conduct, notwithstanding Microsoft's less combative stance in recent years. The news can be found in a story reported by Charles Forelle bylined in Brussells this morning. 

According to the Journal, the investigation will focus on whether Microsoft "violated antitrust laws during a struggle last year to ratify its Office software file format as an international standard."  The article also says that the regulators are "stepping up scrutiny of the issue."  The Journal cites the following as the type of activity it will look into:

In the months and weeks leading up to [last summer's vote on OOXML], Microsoft resellers and other allies joined standards bodies en masse -- helping swell the Italian group, for instance, from a half-dozen members to 85. Opponents said Microsoft stacked committees. People familiar with the matter say EU regulators are now questioning whether Microsoft's actions were illegal. Microsoft said at the time that any committee expansion had the effect of making more voices heard; it also said rival International Business Machines Corp. mobilized on the other side of the vote.

A Microsoft spokesman referred to a statement issued last month, in which the company said it would "cooperate fully" with the EU regulator and was "committed to ensuring" the company is in compliance with EU law.

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Tracking the Man with the Gavel: Alex Brown on the BRM

OpenDocument and OOXML

As many of you are aware, Alex Brown will be the "Convenor" of the OOXML Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM)  that will run from February 25 through 29 in Geneva, Switzerland.  Alex has a variety of unenviable tasks, including:

Trying to interpret various standing Directives and other ISO/IEC JTC1 rules and practices that were created for what might be described as kinder, gentler times (not to mention for shorter specifications). 

Figuring out how to process c. 1,000 comments (after elimination of duplicates) during a 35 hour meeting week, without the currently contemplated possibility of an extension. 

Herding 120 cats, some of which will have strong opinions on individual points, others of which will have alternating suggestions on how to resolve a given point,  and many of whom may be just plain bewildered, due to the lack of time to be fully prepared.

For better or worse, the rules that Alex will be interpreting and applying are not as comprehensive, and certainly not as detailed, as the situation might demand to put everyone on exactly the same page regarding what should (or at least could) be done at many points in time.  As a result, knowing how Alex's thoughts are shaping up is both interesting and important.  To his credit, he has been generous about sharing those thoughts, and often how he arrived at them, at his blog, which can be found here.

While I've often linked to Alex's blog and have had a permanent link in the "Blogs I Read" category for some time, I'd like to point to Alex's latest entry, which covers several important points that others have recently blogged on.  In many cases, Alex comes out differently than some others that have stated firm opinions, and since Alex has the gavel, his opinion will be the one that counts.

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ODF vs. OOXML on the Eve of the BRM

OpenDocument and OOXML

If you're reading this blog entry, you've probably been following the battle between ODF and OOXML.  If so, you may be thinking of that conflict as a classic standards war, but in fact, it goes much deeper than that label would suggest.  What is happening between the proponents of ODF and OOXML is only a skirmish in a bigger battle that involves a fundamental reordering of  forces, ideologies, stakeholders, and economics at the interface of  society and information technology. 

Today, open source software is challenging proprietary models, hundreds of millions of people in emerging societies are choosing their first computer platforms from a range of alternatives, major vendors are converting from product to service strategies, and software as a service is finally coming into its own - to mention only a few of the many forces that are transforming the realities that ruled the IT marketplace for decades.  When the dust settles, the alignments and identities of the Great Powers of the IT world will be as different as were the Great Powers of the world at the end of the First World War.

It is in this light that the ODF vs. OOXML struggle should really be seen, and for this reason I've dedicated the latest issue of Standards Today  to exploring these added dimensions on the eve of the OOXML Ballot Resolution Meeting that will begin on February 25 in Geneva, Switzerland.

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EU Opens Two New Investigations Against Microsoft – One Involving OOXML

OpenDocument and OOXML

Regulators in the EU today announced that they are opening two new investigations against Microsoft, this time focusing not on peripheral functionalities like media players, but on the core of Microsoft's business: its operating and office suite software.  The investigations are in response to a recent complaint filed by Norway browser developer Opera Software ASA and a 2006 complaint brought by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), which includes Microsoft rivals IBM, Nokia, Sun, RealNetworks and Oracle among its members.

Both investigations focus on the benefits that Microsoft gains by combining features, such as search and Windows Live, into its operating system.  But the investigation sparked by the Opera complaint also includes some novel and interesting features, based upon Opera's contention that Microsoft's failure to conform Internet Explorer to prevailing open standards puts its competitors at a disadvantage (Opera also asks that either IE not be bundled with Windows, or that other browsers, including its own, should be included as well, with no browser being preset as a default).

The investigations will also look into whether Microsoft has failed to adequately open OOXML, or to take adequate measures to ensure that Office is "sufficiently interoperable" with competing products.  This would seem to indicate that Microsoft's strategy of offering OOXML to Ecma, and then ISO/IEC JTC1, may fail to achieve its objective, whether or not OOXML is finally approved as a global standard.

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At a Loss for Words

OpenDocument and OOXML

It's not often I find myself at a loss for words when I read something, but this is one of those times. 

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it isn't really necessary for me to add any words to the following news, other than to characterize them with a Latin phrase lawyers use:  Res ipse loquitor, which translates as "the thing speaks for itself."  I'll give one clue, though:  I've added this blog post to the "ODF and OOXML" folder.  That's "OOXML" as in "the world must have this standard so that our customers can open the billions of documents that have already been created in older versions of" a certain office productivity suite.

So without further ado, here's the news, along with what a few other people have had to say about it   [Update:  see also the comments that readers have added below interpreting the original Microsoft information]:

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A Peek Behind the Ecma OOXML Curtain

OpenDocument and OOXML

As the date for the February BRM (Ballot Resolution Meeting) on ISO/IEC JTC1 DIS 29500 (a/k/a Ecma 376, a/k/a Microsoft OOXML) approaches, more and more attention is being paid to how Ecma will propose the disposition of the comments submitted during the general voting period.  This level of heightened interest is legitimately urgent, due to both the great number of the comments that need to be resolved,  even after elimination of duplicates, as well because of the late date upon which the proposed resolutions will be made public (the deadline, if memory serves, is January 19, while the BRM will commence its deliberations on February 25 of next year).

The words are therefore flying fast and furious at the many blogs covering this question, and tempers are rising in the comments appended to those of bloggers that have a direct interest in the outcome.  A particularly contentious issue has been whether Ecma is trying to make it as easy as possible, or is trying to make it as difficult as possible while still scoring PR points, for interested parties to view proposed dispositions of comments, and whether it does, or does not, have the latitude under ISO rules to be more transparent.  The fairly opaque, and sometimes contradictory nature of those rules, has not made the debate any easier, and gives rise to the possibility of confusion, at best, and serious mistakes, at worst, as Pamela Jones pointed out at Groklaw this morning. 

The result is that there will be very little real data available to the general public until Ecma opens the curtains on January 19.  And the import of what little data does become available is usually the subject of instant disagreement.

With that as prelude, I've pasted in the text of a press release at the end of this blog entry that Ecma issued yesterday.  The release gives only a peek at some of the issues addressed in the new dispositions, giving varying degrees of detail on each area highlighted - but that's more than we've had to go on so far.  Here is my summary of the press release and its significance, when viewed in the context of other reliable, available information:

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Open Formats Enter the Presidential Debate

OpenDocument and OOXML

Those of us who live in America are currently in the midst of that most protracted, expensive and (often) tedious of all democratic processes: the quadrennial quest to find, and perhaps even elect, the most able leader to guide the nation into the future.  Part and parcel to that spectacle is a seemingly endless torrent of printed words and video.  These emanate from more than a dozen candidates, each of whom is trying to convince the electorate that he or she is The One, while at the same time hoping to avoid offering any point of vulnerability that can be exploited by the opposition.

It is an overwhelming and leveling experience for all concerned, electorate and candidates alike.

Out of the campaign cacophony of the last week emerged a handful of words from Senator and Democratic party hopeful Barack Obama that could not fail to catch my attention.  He used them during the presidential debate held in Las Vegas, and they also appear in the "Innovation Agenda" that Obama had released a few days before.  He announced this agenda in a speech he delivered on November 14 at an aptly selected venue:  the Google campus in Mountainview, California.  One of the pledges he made in the course of that speech reads in part as follows:

To seize this moment, we have to use technology to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most secretive Administrations in history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to sunlight. As President, I'll change that. I'll put government data online in universally accessible formats.  [emphasis added]

A presidential candidate that is including "universally accessible formats" in his platform?  How did that come about?

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Putting the OpenDocument Foundation to Bed (without its supper)

OpenDocument and OOXML

Wednesday I attended the W3C Technical Plenary Day festivities, which included a brief press conference with Tim Berners-Lee, interesting insights into the W3C's work in progress and future plans, and much more (you can view the agenda here).  And it also gave me a chance to sit with Chris Lilley, a W3C employee whose responsibilities include Interaction Domain Leader, Co-Chair W3C SVG Working Group, W3C Graphics Activity Lead and Co-Chair, W3C Hypertext CG.  What that combination of titles means is that he is the "go to" guy at W3C to learn what W3C's CDF standard is all about. 

CDF is one of the very many useful projects that W3C has been laboring on, but not one that you would have been likely to have heard much about.  Until recently, that is, when Gary Edwards, Sam Hiser and Marbux, the management (and perhaps sole remaining members) of the OpenDocument Foundation decided that CDF was the answer to all of the problems that ODF was designed to address.  This announcement gave rise to a flurry of press attention that Sam Hiser has collected here.  As others (such as Rob Weir) have already documented, these articles gave the Foundation's position far more attention than it deserved.