How the Game is Played: INCITS V1 Narrowly Votes Down OOXML

Rob Weir reported today that V1, the Technical Committee at standards organization INCITS charged by the Executive Committee of that organization to review office format specifications, has narrowly failed to approve Ecma 376 (formerly Microsoft's OfficeOpen XML formats). A number of votes were tried across marathon proceedings, including "approval, with comments," "abstention, with comments," and "disapproval, with comments," all of which failed to garner the necessary 2/3s vote needed to report out a consensus decision.

As significantly, Rob reports that a very dramatic increase in the membership of V1 was observed in the months leading up to the vote – most of whom were coincidentally were representatives of Microsoft business partners, and the great majority of whom voted as a block in favor of advancing the specification in a manner that would permit, and against any vote that would prevent, final approval as an ISO/IEC standard. Rob describes the events to date as follows:

On April 2nd the INCITS Executive Board asked V1 “to coordinate and develop the U.S. recommended position” on OOXML and to return this recommendation by July 17th. After several meetings, including a two-day face-to-face meeting in Washington, DC in late June, and the recording of over 300 member-submitted comments, V1 voted last Friday….

An important factor in the V1 vote was the large number of members who joined very late in the process. At the start of the year, V1 had only 7 voting members. But by Friday’s meeting V1 had 26 voting members. There was a clear pattern in the voting where the long-time V1 members voted for the “Disapproval, with comments” position as well as “Abstention, with comments” while the newer members voted overwhelmingly “Yes, with comments” and against “Abstention with comments.” This is not surprising since the new members were largely Microsoft business partners.

The following chart makes this trend clear. As you can see, at the start of the year, V1’s membership consisted of seven organizations, six of whom on Friday voted “Disapproval, with comments”, and one (Microsoft) who voted “Approval, with comments”. The membership spurt came at the very end, in the last month, when 16 new members joined V1. Of these 16 new members, 14 of them voted, “Approval, with comments” on Friday.

<snip>Update, Monday morning:  An overnight comment leads me to add this to my over-tired text of last night: Rob Weir goes on to note that the good news is that the many comments should read ISO.  To which I would add that this is more significant than might be obvious, given that during the contraditions period, Microsoft was successful in persuading V1 to vote “no contradctions” rather than “no contradictions – with comments.” <snip>
I’ve heard reports of similar membership surges in working groups considering Ecma 376 in the National Bodies of other countries this year as well, and regrettably this type of behavior has also been observed in other organizations, and involving other standards. In the IEEE, for example, a wireless working group was suspended after it was reported that the chair was not acting in a neutral fashion and factions were packing the meetings for voting purposes.
Moreover, the standards process is not as “transparent” as proponents of “open standards” would like us to think. Many National Bodies keep comments and voting confidential, despite the fact that the bodies in question are acting as quasi-governmental bodies to represent national positions in global standards bodies.
The unfortunate fact is that when much is at stake, standard setting can be a pretty rough contact sport. And with more standards underlying more enormous markets, these situations are bound to multiply. Nor is the action limited to standards committees. Where international trade is concerned, standards wars can become trade wars, as nearly happened over the WiFi standard, when China wished to require compliance with its homegrown WAPI standard instead – a face-off that continues to simmer today.
In a better world, this type of warfare and behavior would not exist. But in the case of the current war over format standards, you can expect that the hardball will continue over the coming months. It will be interesting indeed to see the final outcome as the five-month review and comment period winds to a close. That observation applies to the action in the United States as well, which, as Rob reports, ain’t over  yet.
Note that this is not the final step in developing the US position on OOXML. The next step will be for the INCITS Executive Board to review the comments V1 has generated, and then to determine the US position via a 30-day letter ballot. That, followed by a possible 10-day reconsideration ballot, will take us to the September 2nd deadline for this JTC1 ballot. It is typical practice for INCITS to follow the recommendations of its technical committees. But since the committee of technical experts in V1 was not able to develop a consensus recommendation, it is not clear how the INCITS Executive Board will now make their decision.              
 Stay tuned.

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Comments (18)

  1. You did not quote the following sentence from Rob which I think is a good summary:

    "The result is that V1 will report out a large list of technical comments for consideration by INCITS, but will not report a consensus position on this controversial ISO "Fast Track" submission."

    Just a suggestion 🙂

  2. typo:<br />
    “most of whom were coincidentally were representatives of Microsoft business partners”, duplicate 2nd were.<br />
    <br />

  3. Andy, do you have a seat, and do you need funding to get one?
    Tom,  happy to paypal my way to data format sanity, E.

    Who else?  Mark Shuttleworth?, FSF,, …must be a bunch of distinct organizations interested in standards that are standards that can come up with $800 and two sets of plan tickets!

  4. What has been puzzling me on this whole thing is how MS is getting all these astroturfers on the boards to begin with.

    Does somebody just show up and say, "hey, I want to be on the committee", are they joining up and immediately having the right to vote on these committees as part of their membership? Are they "moles" who have been members all this time and are being wedged into the committees by some skullduggery? Or what? How are these folks showing up on the committees and how can FOSS promoters do the same?

    Enquiring minds want to know!

  5. I don’t have enough time at the moment to do a detailed response, but what’s good and bad about the "open standards process" is that anyone can have a voice in the accredited organizations, and in many consortia (like OASIS) as well.  That’s the good part.  The bad part is that only the people that have the most at stake are likely to show up and exercise their right to speak (and vote).

    It would be easy and quick to say "oh, those poor standards people – if only they were to do things like open source does."  But that’s too simple a statement as well.  True, open source operates really well as a technical meritocracy, but who’s looking out for the poor non-technical end-user?  Can you imagine what the world would be like if only open source software existed tomorrow?  Technical people would navigate it just fine, but people who only know how to type would be lost at sea in many cases.  I’m using Geeklog (which was developed by an open source community) here for the flexibility it offers, and partially as a matter of principle.  But you’d never compare it to a commercial program for ease of use, easy, readily available documentation, or anything like that.

    In short, there’s nobody currently looking out for the lay-user in many open source projects (not all – KDE, for example, is making real efforts to look out for folks like them, I’m told), and non-technical end users aren’t likely to show up in open source projects, either.  That could all change, of course, but the decisions would be made on a project-by-project basis.

    So at the end of the day, despite the fact that the INCITS – ISO/IEC track has lots of failings, it also has lots of opportunities for people to get involved – in something like 173 countries around the world, and with multi-month comment periods, and with lots of exposure, like at this and in many other blogs.  Those that don’t like the way things are going have the right to offer comments on why they think something is wrong, and those comments have to be looked at and either addressed with changes, or at least considered.  And at the end of the day, there’s a vote.

    So while I too-often play the Eeyore role of saying "woe is me, look at how half-empty this glass is"  I should from time to time also say that the same comment that’s often quoted about democracy applies more or less to standard setting as well:  it’s the worst system there is, except for everything else.

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be keeping a sharp eye on it all the time, or that we shouldn’t be working to make it better.

    As to me joining INCITS: interesting thought.  Now if I only had some spare time…

      –  Admin

    • Please do consider making an internal business case for the time to participate on the single most significant standards activity since, oh I don’t know, 1 = true, 0 = false :-).


      • More seriously, the main reason I don’t participate in standards committees is that I’m not technically competent to really contribute well at that level.   There are plenty of people that are, so I figure my time is better spent shining the light and helping people understand what’s going on, which also allows me to cover more issues in more places than I could if I invested a lot of time in a single standards committee.

          –  Andy

  6. FYI, Wayback records the membership on 10/2/06 as:
    Text Processing: Office and Publishing Systems Interface
    1. IBM Corporation
    2. Microsoft Corporation
    3. Patrick Durusau Inc
    4. Retrieval Systems Corporation
    5. Sun Microsystems Inc
    6. Text Structure Consulting
    7. XML Factor Inc

    So a diff run for the current membership creates this group:

    Text Processing: Office and Publishing Systems Interface

    3Sharp –MSFT Exchange experts, spin off of Mike Anderer’s Entirenet
    Advaiya — Indian tech company
    Blackbird Technologies Inc –Black ops Security company
    BP Corporation North America Inc
    Document Sciences
    Farance Inc — consultancy
    Ligent — Mind maps
    Mimosa Systems Inc — document backup
    Mindjet Corporation –mind maps
    NextPage — portable documents indexing  from Utah
    Oracle Corporation
    Peters & Associates –data protection backups
    Reality Mobile LLC –secure communications
    Red Hat
    Retrieval Systems Corporation — proprietary indexing/datamining for undisclosed clients
    Revonet — CRM direct marketing
    Snowfall Software** New home of Patrick Durusau** indexing
    United States Dept of Defense / DISA
    Washington State Archives
    Xinnovation Inc –vertical app for "wealth management"
    Y-12 National Security Complex* shown on Feb 2006 membership list, national security data mining
    Z5 Technologies — secure communications for government clients

  7. Dear Andy Updegrove,

    The vote was divided down the partisan line as expected.

    While not specific to OOXML V1 process, I see a problem with submitting written comments here. It looks like with OOXML written comments count for nothing. Members will just vote as they wish and that counts more than written comments. Not that this is unexpected. But it clearly shows that members can torpedo and negating any majority view in the written comments. This time, any anti-OOXML comments, if it was the majority view of the written comments, would had counted for nothing if the vote had been "Approval, with comments". Why should we submit comments to V1 or any standard committee where voting take place? Or what will happen if the committee did go against the majority view of the written submission?

    The next round of fighting is obviously on the text of the recommendation to ANSI. Does this means written comments counts more now?

    thank you.

  8. OOXML has become such a farce that I don’t see how ISO can remain a credible organization if OOXML is approved. Or, perhaps another way to put it: ISO’s credibility will become equal with ECMA. Now there’s something to be proud of.

  9.  "As significantly, Rob reports that a very dramatic increase in the membership of V1 was observed in the months leading up to the vote – most of whom were coincidentally were representatives of Microsoft business partners, and the great majority of whom voted as a block in favor of advancing the specification in a manner that would permit, and against any vote that would prevent, final approval as an ISO/IEC standard"

     Allied Tube, anyone?

  10. You mention the IEEE committee that was suspended: but wasn’t the reason for the suspension "obstructionism", i.e. where one gang of commercial players manage to block the progress of a spec promoted by their rivals, rather than, say, adopting a live-and-let-live approach. Are you sure that is the example you want to bring up in this case?

  11. Authored by: Admin on Wednesday, July 18 2007 @ 05:15 AM PDT

    I apologize for being a bit slow in responding to several comments; yesterday was a road day.

    First thanks to the person who ferreted out the before and after lists of INCITS V1 working group members; quite interesting to see.

    And I see over at Groklaw that things are becoming interesting in Italy as well as in Portugal, as you can see here

    Regarding whether comments are worthwhile:  Yes!  But it’s important to look at how they factor in.  First, when you see reference to comments in voting in national bodies, that refers to comments that those on the committee of the individual National Body think should accompany their votes when they are forwarded to ISO/IEC JTC1.  Those comments can accompany a "yes" vote, and incidate changes that they think should be made, but that their "yes" vote is not conditional on their occurring.  Or they can vote "no," and indicate in their comments why they think the standard shouldn’t be accepted at all, or that their "no" vote could become a "yes" vote if their concerns are addressed.

    I’m not an expert on how things are likely to happen in any individual country, but I assume that it’s accurate to say that the National Body committee members in each case need to agree on what comments, if any, will accompany their vote, presumably by a 2/3’s vote, the same as for their bottom line vote as well.

    Here’s where your comments come in:  they inform the National Body committee members of things of which they might not be aware, they can give them specifics to use to bolster their own arguments, they can help persuade undecided members, and they can held refute FUD.  Finally, they give a non-binding sense of those in the country involved of how they would like to see their national vote go.

    Part of your question also invovled whether the comments that the National Body committee members add can undercut the overall vote.  That would be very situational, so it’s a bit hard to generalize.  Sometimes I expect this could happen, and other times not, but as I set here imaginging situations it seems to me that the ability to add comments is very important, especially when it is kept in mind that most votes are not this controversial.  If your choices are only "yes" or "no," then many standards might get adopted in mediocre form that could have been improved in response to comments, and some potentially very good standards might be shot down because they were not (at that point in time) quite good enough.

    IN any event, don’t assume that your own comments don’t matter, and do continue to share them, both with your National Body, as well as publicly.

    Next, I see that we have a comment from someone that knows his standards case law.  For those of you who don’t, you can read about the Allied Tube case (which involved packing the committee to do in one member, thus violating the antitrust laws) here, and may want to know about the very extensive Laws, Cases and Regulations section of my site, which you can find here.

    And finally, hi Rick – good to see you here.  I wasn’t taking the time to do a very good job bringing IEEE into my comments.  There are actually two situations that I think are relevant, both in the wireless area.  As I recall, in one situation, the working group was suspended due to alleged packing of the working group, and alleged favoritism by the chair, who had an undisclosed conflict (this is how I remember the news reports – I don’t have any direct information).  The other was the working group that got disbanded, because they couldn’t achieve the 70% consensus – and now we have two competing specifications supported by rival groups, rather than a single consensus standard.  Hopefully I’ve done a better job with this paragraph.  In either case, they aren’t representative of a system that is working as well as disinterested parties could hope.

    Thanks to all for your good comments.

      –  Andy

    • The IEEE 802.20 suspension note is <a href="">here</a&gt; (PDF)

      A better article from the unsensational EETimes is <a href="">here</a&gt; (HTML)

      A further discussion from an IEEE publication is <a href="">here</a&gt; (HTML) however it seems to spin from the IEEE side, though it does point out the difficulty of creating standards (i.e. getting agreements) when participants have strong economic stakes in styming their opponents plans by adopting "We can have our standard. but you cannot have yours" approach rather than the pluralistic approach.

      The problems included that a commercial enterprise tried to "torpedo" attempts at a new standard, and allegations that the chair had not properly disclosed his allegences (a chair who is allied to one side can of course expect his actions to be more critically judged than a chair with no particular allegiences or floating allegences.)  Specific claims of procedural dodginess included that evaluation times had been truncated. I can see nothing there about stacking, in the sense of having large numbers of people participating: the problem was with invited experts with undeclared allegences. The moral is that it is completely unacceptable for independent experts on standards bodies to take leadership positions without fully disclosing their funding or other allegences.

      IEEE 802 of course is founded on an inability to achieve a unified standard for LANs: they opted for plurality (token ring, token bus, collision bus (ethernet)) and the market has gone its way. Overlapping (in terms of use) standards are sensible when there are irreconciled or irreconcilable underlying technical differences (in the details).

      • Thanks for the extra details, Rick.  I try to keep up on a very wide variety of topics, which makes it difficult to investigate all of them in depth, let alone remember all of the details when i do.  The last time I did a deep dive on the standards wars topic, using wireless often as an example of where "standards competitions" can be useful (in comparison to standards wars) was in this issue of the CSB, and in particular in the Feature Article.

          –  Andy

  12. during the contraditions period, Microsoft was successful in persuading V1 to vote "no contradctions" rather than "no contradictions – with comments."

    Having read the V1 mailing list archive, I don’t believe that’s the case.  There was an uncontested statement that INCITS never referred DIS-29500 to V1 at all during the "contradictions" phase.  The then-members of V1 appear to be less than thrilled about that bit of history.

  13. An uncontradicted statement in an email archive is nothing more than an uncontested statement in an email thread.

    I have been given detailed, first hand descriptions of exactly what went on from a V1 participant who was part of all of the face-to-face meetings.  I stand by the statement that I made.

      –  Andy

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