Ecma Approves OOXML – What Does it All Mean?

Updated 4:45 PM ET

As expected, Ecma, the European-based standards body chosen by Microsoft to fast-track its Office Open XML standard to ISO, voted to adopt OOXML.  The vote was 20 to 1, with IBM casting the only negative vote (as disclosed by IBM VP of Open Standards and Open Source Bob Sutor earlier in the day).  What exactly does the favorable vote mean?  Let's try the Q&A format again to sort it all out.

Q:  Why did Microsoft not send OOXML directly to ISO?

A:  First, let's clear up one thing for accuracy's sake:  while people commonly refer to ISO approval as a shorthand convenience, the actual approving body is a joint committee formed years ago by both ISO, the International Organization for Standardization (right – it's not an acronym) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to address the then-emerging area of information technology standards.  That committee is called the Joint Technical Committee, or JTC1.  So it's actually joint ISO/IEC approval that Microsoft wants for OOXML, to gain parity with OASIS's ODF document format.  ODF was approved for all practical purposes last May, and was formally published just a few days ago.

Q:  Right.  So why did Microsoft not send OOXML directly to JTC1?

A  Glad you asked.  ISO and IEC are not standards development organizations as such, but rather global bodies that have historically approved standards that were generated at the national level by organizations that were accredited for that purpose by bodies recognized by ISO and IEC.  In the US, for example, the accrediting body is ANSI – the American National Standards Institute.  As more and more IT standards were created outside that system, by consortia, ISO/IEC began to accept those standards as well.  But in either case, a specification must first be vetted, approved, and presented by an organization recognized by ISO/IEC.  Only after that occurs will ISO/IEC present a specification to their global membership of nationally representative members for consideration.

Q:  Got it.  So why Ecma?

A:  There are two ways to get to ISO/IEC.  One is through a nationally accredited standards organization (like the IEEE), and the other is through something called the Publicly Available Standards (PAS) process, a track created to allow specifications that have become market standards other than through the accredited process to become globally recognized.  This is the path that OASIS took with ODF.

Under the PAS process, the submitting organization must first be qualified by ISO/IEC.  Ecma was already qualified as a PAS submitter, and has a reputation for being able to process an industry-submitted standard quickly, as it has done with OOXML.  It’s also true that most standards bodies aren’t usually receptive to taking a standard from a single vendor that says “please take this description of my product and package it for submission to ISO/IEC.”  Most standards are created through a collaborative process, rather than through the submission of a final description of a single product, although many standards organizations will base a standard in part on submissions of members.  There are other organizations beside Ecma, however,  such as OMG, which bases all of its standards on existing products, so that as soon as they approve a standard, customers can buy products based on that standard.

Still, even when a standards body approves a specification based on a member-product, it’s usually the case that the specification is based upon a more general interoperability goal – not the entire product on a feature-by-feature basis in so comprehensive a fashion.  IBM’s Bob Sutor posted an interesting example of what this means yesterday.

Q:  How would Ecma and Microsoft describe OOXML’s purpose?

A:  Ecma posted a fourteen page white paper today that describes OOXML’s purpose, properties and structure.  You can find it here.  The most detailed response (both defensive and offensive) to critics by Microsoft that I have seen thus far can be found in this article by Peter Galli, a very thorough reporter at eWeek who has been following the ODF/OOXML story for over a year, and who conducted an interview with Microsoft’s Alan Yates.

Q:  If the ultimate goal of Microsoft is to get ISO/IEC approval, does Ecma approval have any significance other than as a stepping-stone?

A:  Yes and no.  No, in that everyone knew that Ecma was going to approve OOXML.  After you write up a working group charter that says, and I quote,  “The goal of the Technical Committee is to produce a formal standard for office productivity applications within the Ecma International standards process which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats,” you haven’t left much up in doubt.

But yes, in the sense that there were other members of the working group (e.g., Intel, the British Museum, Apple, and so on), so there was a group effort in packaging the standard.  I’ve read statements that say that this group adapted (for example) OOXML to work with other operating systems, but that’s a detail rather than a change.  There are other requirements for ISO/IEC submission as well, that relate to presentation, languages and the like.  But that’s more of a process influence than an assertion of technical influence in any meaningful way, so far as I can tell.

The biggest significance will be that Microsoft will be able to say that OOXML has been “approved by a standards organization.”  As you can tell from the above answers, this process is very complicated and takes a long time.  Most people have no reason to know about it or understand what’s involved, so a statement that “OOXML has been approved as a standard” will go a long way in the marketplace, for PR purposes.  You can expect that Microsoft will make the most of this event.  Here’s a first quote, from Microsoft’s Alan Yates, general manager for information-worker strategy, as quoted in an Associated Press article posted this afternoon:

Hopefully this will allow some of the supposed conflict to die down.  Now that OpenXML is an open international standard, we think that people will essentially have much greater trust that it’s around for the long term.

Q:  So what happens next?

A:  What happens next is that Ecma will submit OOXML to JTC1 for a long and much more complex approval process that will take from nine months to a year (at least).  But that’s a Q&A for another day (coming soon).

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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Comments (2)

  1. Maybe I’m a bit naive . . . but does this mean that Microsoft is trying to get the various standards authorities eating out of their hands – i.e. uncritically approving everything pumped out by the behemoth?

    And, pointedly; how long will it be until Open Source alternatives to Microsoft products (such as OOO) will be able to open OOXML format documents?

    sincerely, Richmond Mathewson

    • Different organizations have different policies and attitudes towards accepting contributions or undertaking projects.  Many companies (and not just Microsoft) that have a standards project they’d like to see launched typically shop for the organization that they think will serve their needs best.  At one end of the spectrum, it can be the one with the greatest credibility and likelihood of getting the standard widely adopted, and at the other end can be the one in which they expect they will retain the greatest control over the project.  Or, ideally, both.  This has been going on for a very long time.

      Sometimes there is negotiating behind the scenes, where the standards organization holds a discussion to determine in advance whether the contributor will guarantee in advance that they will not retain any intellectual property rights that might stand in the way of the standard being completely “open,” and sometimes the contributor tries to impose limitations.  In the latter case, the organization needs to decide whether to take the contribution or not.  If the restrictions are too great, then it risks damaging its reputation in the marketplace. 

      On your second question, the answer should be “soon.”  A number of ODF compliant software suites already open Office 2003 and earlier Microsoft documents, and both Novell and Corell have said that they will support both formats.  Novell has said that it will support both in text documents in January, and presentation and spreadsheet documents later.  Corell has said that it will support all three types of documents in OOXML by mid-2007, and ODF in text documents by the same date.  Novell has said that it will offer its plugin converters for OOXML to in open source form.  I expect that there will be further announcements by other suites in the future.

        –  Andy

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