Another Day, Another Episode (or two): Microsoft Joins the ODF/ISO Reconciliation Committee

A few days ago, I got an email from someone with news of an interesting development in the ongoing ODF saga. The essence of the tip was this: a few days ago, Microsoft joined a very small subcommittee called "V1 Text Processing: Office and Publishing Systems Interface." And it just so happens that this small subcommittee (six companies — including Microsoft) is the entity charged with reconciling the votes that are being cast in the ISO vote to adopt the OASIS OpenDocument Format.

The reason why this is significant bears a bit of explaining, because the global standard setting infrastructure is rather complex, and also has a bit of history that is worth understanding.

The historical context involves two global standards bodies, ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) and the IEC (the International Electrotechnical Commission), each of which predates the modern world of information technology. When the computers began to become widely used, they therefore agreed to work together, rather than compete, in setting standards in this emerging area. As a result, they formed Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1), which in turn set up a large number of committees to address various areas of technology (languages, computers, etc.).

One of those committees is Standards Committee 34: Document Description and Processing Languages. Since ISO and the IEC are umbrella organizations, rather than standard setting bodies in their own right, they designated an interested national member to be the “Secretariat” of each committee. In this case, the Secretariat is the Standards Council of Canada, which in turn (stay with me now) approved INCITS, a standards development organization (SDO) accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) of SC34. INCITS is a very large and active organization, so it designated a subcommittee called V1 to actually perform the TAG function. Got that?

Now — to get back to ODF (remember ODF? This is a blog entry about ODF).

ISO delegated the ODF submission to SC 34, which is the proper home within the ISO family for a standard of this type. SC 34 in turn assigned it to WG 1, which opened a six-month balloting period, which will close about a month from now.

With this structural overview, you will not be surprised to learn that the process involved in an ISO approval is also rather convoluted. And in order to understand why Microsoft’s joining V1 is significant, it’s also necessary to understand the difference between the process of many consortia and the world of SDOs.

While consortia desire to develop standards that have broad support, they nonetheless often make decisions based simply on majority voting. The accredited world of SDOs, on the other hand, has a commitment to “consensus,” in order to avoid the tyranny of the majority over the minority.

And while consensus does not mean that unanimity is required, it does mean that an effort is made to accommodate all opinions and satisfy all needs to the greatest extent possible. One of the ways that the SDO process tries to achieve this goal is by requiring that those that vote “no” on a proposal must give the reasons why they decline to approve a draft standard. The procedures of most SDOs require that these comments then be carefully reviewed, and that an effort be made to accommodate all reasonable issues in the hope of achieving not only a more broadly supported, but hopefully a technically superior result as well.

Sometimes that works well, and a broadly supported standard is the result. But at other times it works poorly, resulting in long-delayed, watered down standards that achieve little, if any, adoption.

This complex and time consuming process is one reason that consortia came into vogue to begin with, and it’s no accident that the market sector in which they were launched, and continue to flourish, is the fast-paced world of technology, where opportunities are often evanescent and market windows can seemingly close in the wink of a venture capitalist’s eye. In such a setting, consensus is seen by some as a luxury that can often be ill afforded.

And therein lies the rub for ODF (remember ODF? This is a blog entry about ODF). Because while ODF was developed within the consortium world, it is important that it be adopted in the accredited world by ISO, because some governments (such as those in Europe) that are otherwise favorably disposed towards using ODF are required to use ISO-approved standards.

Still, there is the question du jour, which is this: Why does Microsoft want to be on this small subcommittee? After all, although it has been a member of OASIS for years, it decided not to take part in the ODF Technical Committee, and has also declined to support ODF as well. (Interestingly enough, despite opting out of the opportunity to help create ODF, it later offered this: “[t]he OASIS committee did not focus on the requirements, constraints, and experiences of Microsoft customers” as a reason for submitting the XMLRS to Ecma, instead of “simply supporting the file format for the Open Office product.”)

Pamela Jones thinks she’s figured out the answer to today’s question. In her blog entry posted at earlier this evening, she has this to say:

I am imagining ODF plodding along, with Microsoft asking questions, fine combing through the comments, “did you mean this or that?”, getting bogged down in minutia until, lo and behold, either Microsoft’s XML makes it as an ISO standard first, or they arrive neck and neck.

Microsoft, you will recall, submitted its XMLRS to European standards group Ecma last fall, as a first step towards an ISO submission, in an effort to head off the challenge of ODF.

So there you have it. I know that a mainstream journalist has obtained a statement from Microsoft on its joining V1. Although I’ve seen it, of course I won’t use it here, as he hasn’t published his article yet. But it should come as no surprise to you that the Microsoft person did not say “Yes! Exactly! That’s it!”

It will be interesting to see how many comments were made during the ISO balloting, as well as how expeditiously they are reconciled. If you’d like to keep track of that process, here are some further details, as kindly provided by Patrick Durusau, the Chairman of V1 and the Project Editor for the OpenDocument Format submission.

Martin Bryan of the UK delegation is the Chair of the ballot resolution process. Patrick Durusau will be responsible for producing the draft (with assistance from the SC 34 Secretariat) that emerges from the ballot resolution process, and he is also the Errata editor in the OASIS OpenDocument Format TC (the errata process is a committee reconciliation of any comments received from the ISO National Bodies prior to the actual ballot resolution meeting).

As always, I will report further on this latest episode in the continuing saga that is ODF vs. XMLRS.

[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]

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