Linux Foundation Releases Statement Calling for National Bodies to Vote “No” on OOXML

I'm pleased to note that the Linux Foundation (which I serve as Director of Standards Strategy, as well as legal counsel) has issued a statement calling for ISO/IEC JTC1 members to vote "No with Comments" on OOXML. That statement is here, and is also reproduced in full at the end of this blog entry. The decision to issue the statement follows on the heels of a rising crescendo of reports of last minute additions of individuals to National Bodies which is slanting voting results, and of a similar last minute upgrading of nine (or perhaps by now, more) nations to "P" status in ISO [Updated:  the number is now ten - Malta is the new addition.] [Updated: the number is now eleven - Cote e'Ivoire is the latest addition.  And see this blog entry for additional implicationss]


Why should or organization that was formed to promote and protect Linux be, to my knowledge, the first standards organization to call for a "no" vote on a document format standard? There are quite a few reasons, to my mind.   And they are all extremely important.


First, document formats are relevant to Linux on the Desktop. You can find a page of quotes from the Linux Desktop Architects here, expressing their concerns. Second, Microsoft painted a target on Linux, OpenOffice (and, presumably, other office software suites that implement ODF), email and "other open source software" as a single grouping, when it began speaking of infringement of its 235 un-named patents. To me, this indicates that Microsoft sees Linux on the Desktop as the next big battle after server software, and is aligning Windows and OOXML in opposition to Linux and ODF as part of a single strategy. 

Next, the Linux Foundation was formed through the merger of Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group (FSG). The mission of the latter, which is continued within the Linux Foundation, is to create standards in support of Linux. Those standards include the Linux Standards Base (LSB), which is supported by all of the major Linux distributions. The LSB is itself an ISO/IEC JTC1-adopted global standard, and we are therefore very familiar with the adoption process.


And pragmatically, there is this: OOXML is certainly going to be widely implemented, since Microsoft has implemented it in Office 2007. That means, for everyone’s good, OOXML had better be as good as possible. There have been many hundreds of issues, major as well as minor, that have been identified with OOXML during the short period provided for the review of the over-6,000 page specification. I expect that more will be identified given additional time. If a vote of “yes,” even with comments, is the result of the current voting, those comments may not be taken seriously. Only with a “no” vote, with comments, is there real leverage to force necessary changes, in order to turn those “no” votes into “yes” votes. Given that some of these changes will be difficult for Microsoft to accommodate, this leverage will be crucial. If we’re going to have to live with OOXML, it had better be as good – and present as level a playing field – as possible, .under the circumstances.


But to me, the most compelling reason for making the statement is because I believe that Microsoft has profoundly damaged the credibility of the standard setting system. Jason Matusow, Microsoft’s Director of Corporate Standards, has on at least two occasions (there may be more) stated Microsoft’s intention to do everything that can be done within the system without breaking the rules. Leaving aside whether all actions taken have been within those boundaries, it appears that Microsoft has been spectacularly successful at achieving its objective. 


And it is important to note this as well: While Jason made his statements predicting what “all vendors” would do, there has been a complete absence of reports suggesting behavior that is even remotely comparable on the part of any other vendor during this process.


It is essential to remember in this context that the national and global rules of standards participation are intended to ensure that the best standards are created, and that those standards will serve everyone, everywhere, in the best way possible. Accordingly, those rules are biased towards making it easy to become qualified to vote and to participate in the evaluation and voting process. Many nations have taken this opportunity and obligation seriously, and have done so on a very long-term basis. In the case of OOXML, the standards experts of these nations have labored long and hard to vet a gargantuan specification, and to offer detailed comments to indicate what changes would be required to turn a specification that should have been better prepared into a document that would be entitled to achieve the status of a global standard.


And then what happened? In a number of nations, such as Sweden (I have now confirmed the accuracy of this report), there was a sudden, last minute rush of individuals joining the National Body committee, resulting in a “yes” vote. 18 of the 23 last minute additions in Sweden were Microsoft Certified Gold Partners. And at the global level, the number of “P” ISO members has suddenly swelled from 30 to 39.


This kind of conduct, while technically within the rules, makes a mockery of the standards development process, and inevitably raises questions such as these: 

1. What does it say to the hundreds of individuals that have been laboring in good faith in National Bodies around the world to correct to identify the many defects that should be been fixed before OOXML was submitted to Ecma, let alone ISO/IEC, if their efforts prove to be useless in the end? 


2. Why should anyone work to submit comments on the next standard submitted under similar circumstances, if the result will be foreordained?


3. Why should anyone give any credibility to an ISO/IEC standard in the future, if the process can be so easily gamed?


4. Why should any vendor or consortium bother to submit its standards through the PAS or Fast Track process in the future, if the effort can be so easily defeated through similar tactics, on the one hand, or if the outcome may have so little credibility, as a result of the OOXML experience? 

As I have watched the national vote stacking and P upgrades progress, I have been reminded of nothing so much as Caligula’s forcing the election of his horse as a Consul of Rome. The arrogance of that emperor to show that he was above the rules strikes me as being remarkably similar to the public commitment of a vendor to do everything it takes “within the rules” to achieve an outcome – the rest of the world be damned.


Sadly, it seems that, due to the efforts of a single company, ISO/IEC will need to overhaul their good faith based rules to prevent a similar stunt from being perpetrated on the system in the future. Otherwise, that system will have no validity at all. 


Perhaps enough National Bodies will heed the call of the Linux Foundation to draw a line in the sand, here and now, and even at this eleventh hour, and stop the juggernaut of abuse before it drives the system totally over the cliff.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here is the statement in full (and see John Cherry’s blog entry here as well).

Linux Foundation Statement on OOXML

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

On September 2, the comment and voting period will close on ISO/IEC DIS 29500, the draft specification based upon Microsoft’s Office Open XML formats (OOXML). The Linux Foundation (LF) has received questions from outside its membership regarding its position on adoption of OOXML in its current form as a global standard. In sum, the Linux Foundation calls upon those National Bodies that have not yet cast their votes to vote “No, with comments.”

By way of context: Central to the mission of the Linux Foundation is the creation of standards that become widely adopted. In recent years, the Linux Foundation (then known as the Free Standards Group) successfully submitted the Linux Standard Base (LSB) to ISO/IEC for adoption through a process similar to that now being employed to review OOXML. The LSB has now been implemented by all major distributions of Linux.

As a result, the Linux Foundation is not only familiar with, but has a vested interest in the preservation of the validity and integrity of the global standards adoption process. When that process works well, everyone wins. The modern world has become utterly dependent upon technology, and therefore upon the ability of standards organizations to provide interoperability and other open standards as well. With the conversion of paper documents to digital formats, the world has also become utterly dependent upon the ability of those documents to be accessed in the future. Creation of documents in proprietary formats at best jeopardizes that ability, and at worst guarantees that easy access in the future will be impossible.

Consequently, the Linux Foundation believes it is important for effective and robust document format standards to be developed, and for those standards to be universally adopted. In order for universal adoption to be achieved, it is equally important for the process that creates those standards to be above reproach.

More specifically, the Linux Foundation supports the activities of the Linux Desktop Architects and their work enhancing the Linux desktop. (You can find their statements on OOXML here.) The Linux Foundation believes that Linux on the desktop will become increasingly widely deployed, and therefore the availability of robust, widely adopted – and easily implemented – document format standards are of great importance to those that develop, sell and use Linux in this way.


Finally, the Linux Foundation notes that there already exists an ISO/IEC standard intended for a similar purpose – the Open Document Format – that has been implemented in at least a dozen products, both open source as well as proprietary. These products have been developed and released by multiple vendors (including several Linux Foundation members). While the current voting in ISO/IEC JTC1 is based upon the technical merits and issues relating to OOXML, the Linux Foundation believes that the marketplace would be better served by all vendors – including Microsoft – uniting around the implementation and further development of a single, common specification. Given the existence and prior ISO/IEC JTC1 adoption of ODF, and the fact that OOXML (which is a new specification) will require translation of existing documents as well, the Linux Foundation believes that the better platform for that effort would be ODF.

The Linux Foundation offers the following advice to those that are still considering how to vote on ISO/IEC DIS 29500:

1. The OOXML specification is extremely lengthy. Based upon all that we have been able to learn, the review period that has been allowed is insufficient to provide confidence that all issues that may need to be resolved before OOXML could meet minimum quality standards. Accordingly, the Linux Foundation believes that adoption of OOXML, after addressing only those issues that have been identified to date, would be unwise.

2. That said, there have already been hundreds of issues that have been raised. While some of these issues are minor, many are not. The Linux Foundation believes that OOXML is simply not mature enough at this point to be granted approval as an ISO/IEC standard. Many, but not all, of these issues have been summarized here.

3. ISO/IEC standards are supposed to reference other globally adopted standards where those standards exist. In the case of OOXML, many proprietary Microsoft specifications have been referenced. In some cases (e.g., language codes, vector graphics), Microsoft has used its own, internal codes and specifications rather than already existing, publicly available alternatives. This not only violates ISO/IEC rules, but also puts in question whether implementers can fully implement OOXML without infringing intellectual property rights (IPR) of Microsoft. Will those IPRs be available? If so, upon what terms will they be available? The answers to these questions appear to be currently unknown.

4. OOXML is specific to Windows and other Microsoft products. It is uncertain whether OOXML-based documents will be easily created, saved, and opened using other operating systems – like Linux – and applications, with or without converters or translators. An international standard should be created in the first instance to be neutral to all operating systems and other products.

For all these reasons and more, the Linux Foundation calls upon those National Bodies that have not yet cast their votes to vote “No, with comments.” Those comments should reflect their best, neutral, technical judgment, based upon OOXML in its current form. Only by doing so, we believe, can both the future availability of documents, but the integrity of the standard setting process be assured.

For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

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Comments (8)

  1. If using Caligula as a parallel …

    He was Emperor for 4 years before finally he annoyed the one set of armed soldiers allowed in Rome, the Praetorian Guard. They then assassinated him.

    A terrible end to an awful Emperor!

    • Well, I hadn’t thought to take the analogy that far, but…

        –  Andy

  2. I share your sentiment that Microsoft had damaged Standard Body’s credibility. In this process, we see three standard bodies: ECMA, ISO and National Bodies.

    In the case of ECMA, its reputation is probably beyond repair. It was still repairable after it approve OOXML since it can write it off as a mistake, but its extraordinary effort to help OOXML at ISO fast  track process completely destroy this.

    NBs are feeling the heat now. At present, I think it is still possible to attribute "misbehaviour" at committee level in National Body to the "work of few". However, it will be interesting to see whether NBs decide to act.

    ISO had so far done nothing except approving the fast track process. Too little to tell whether is there any damages.

    The sad truth is, even if ISO and NBs decided to act (ECMA is beyond help now), it is not going to be in time to stop Microsoft. In fact, I buy the argument that whatever rule amendment should not be applied retrospectively to this case.

    The only NB that had taken drastic action is the SIRIM board of Malaysia. It suspend its committee on document format citing undue influence. Not sure what their vote will be since we are getting mixed signals lately.

    • Without amending the rules while the process is going, I think it is a good idea to declare the process is being abused and abort it. Then it can restart from scratch according to new rules.

      • To abort existing process and start from the beginning is a very extreme instrument that should only be exercise under extreme circumstances. I don’t think this is extreme enough to warrant this for ISO. We need to appropriate blame fairly. What ISO can do is simply to assure that NB’s are playing fairly. Best it can do is to institute two meetings before voting rights is granted like OASIS if it wants to. Then again, the adverse effect of this rule might mean the rule is not worth it.

        What we see now is decision influencing at individual countries. Exactly how individual NB arrived at their own decision is their business and it is upto them to ensure they are not bought. After all, NBs need to do their own housekeeping.

  3. I understand why Microsoft is doing this- they are working to maintain their file format lock-in via an "open" standard.  Once again, they show themselves to be slicker than snakes in oil.

    What I don’t understand is why those with an interest in breaking the MS office monopoly aren’t employing the same tactic in opposition.  I realize that Microsoft has deep pockets and the most riding on this, by why didn’t IBM, Google et al. similarly bribe their partners into joining the fray?  Principle? Didn’t think of it ’til the MS strategy of stacking the deck became obvious?

    Now that I’ve read a bit more about OOXML, I am truly horrified.  I figured it was designed as an "open" standard with plenty of hooks for MS lock-in, but I didn’t realize what a joke the whole standard is.  Criminy.

    • If something is wrong, and your opposition participate in it, it is more a reason not to do the same thing, if only for the moral highground argument.

      Now imagine both side employ this trick openly, what is the standard body management going to do? It can choose to do nothing on the grounds that both side were engaging in the same tactics, or it can choose to punish both.

      Also my parent always teach me that two wrong never made one right.

      I am not saying IBM and Co adhere to this principle, but this alone is good enough reason for me not to do so.

  4. It’s reasonably obvious what is going to happen.

    Everyone who has a choice, will start using the Sun StarOffice available at no charge in the ‘Google Pack’. In particular, that will be the start-up businesses, who have no investment in ‘legacy’ business documents; nor in the workflows which are facilitated by Microsoft Office.

    That, over time, will steadily reduce the demand for copies of Microsoft Office. There will be plenty of demand from those who get it at deep discount … schools, governments, large businesses … but the ‘full retail’ customers will start finding alternatives.

    If Microsoft have in mind preserving a revenue stream, that will mean the unit price will rise.

    How much would a gramophone cost you nowadays (if you wanted a new one to play your old vinyl) ? A typewriter ? A megabyte of magnetic core memory ? You would first have to build the factory, since none of those things are manufactured any more.

    Are we striking out into a brave new world, starting this weekend ? Is it like the DVD taking over from the VHS video-tape ?

    I think we may be. We’re certainly not going back. It’s just a question of how quickly we move forwards.

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