Terms of Microsoft’s Ecma Submission

I've received a copy of the charter for the proposed Ecma working group that would "standardize" the Microsoft XML Reference Schema. "Rubberstamp" is the better word, if Ecma's members vote to proceed.

Someone I know and trust has sent me a copy this evening of what he says are the “Terms of Reference” for Microsoft’s XML Reference Schema submission to Ecma. It is these terms that I understand will be voted on by Ecma this Thursday and that would, if approved, comprise the charter of the working group that would convert the Microsoft submission into a draft standard for adoption by the Ecma membership, and then submission to ISO for adoption as a global standard.

According to the document I have received, the scope for the working group would be as follows:

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. The aim is to enable the implementation of the Office Open XML Formats by a wide set of tools and platforms in order to foster interoperability across office productivity applications and with line-of-business systems. The Technical Committee will also be responsible for the ongoing maintenance and evolution of the standard.[emphasis added]

There are two aspects of the scope that I find to be significant. The first is the use of the limiting words “which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats.” In short, the effort will not be permitted to create a standard that is (as is the case with ODF) intended to be the best possible product-agnostic format standard, but to create a standard that describes the material submitted by Microsoft. On the plus side, the charter does anticipate an ongoing maintenance effort that is not expressly tied to future Microsoft product developments.

The next section of the Terms is called the Introduction, and reads as follows (the emphasis is added by me, rather than present in the original):

The objective of full compatibility with the Office Open XML Formats is adopted in order to

1. Guarantee continuous use of the existing base of Microsoft Office documents without losing any of the functionalities
2. Document all the options, properties, formatting, layout and other information of the existing Microsoft Office document base using the W3C XML 1.0 language
3. Guarantee interoperability by enabling standard-based XML 1.0 tools to create, read and write files conforming to the standardized file format
4. Support the needs of governments and businesses to archive and preserve documents using an Open Standardized Format
5. Enable standard transformations using W3C XSLT (or similar techniques) to extract or repurpose information from the file format 6. Support integration of custom defined schemas

The language that I have highlighted demonstrates the degree to which the charter locks on documents created using Microsoft Office, and surprises me with it’s frankness. The first point is most stark in this regard, speaking of “guaranteeing continuous use of the existing base of Microsoft Office documents without losing any of the functionalities.” Looked at from one perspective, this is a user friendly goal, as the great majority of the documents created in office environments over the last 10 or more years were, after all, created using Office.

But basing a standard setting organization working group on so overtly proprietary a goal is highly unusual in my experience, as compared to chartering a group to create the best vendor neutral solution possible for the future. After all, Microsoft could presumably create a converter without too much difficulty that could carry existing documents forward into the new standard if the Ecma working group thought that some degree of divergence would create a better industry-wide standard. Stated another way, it is the job of a standards body to create great standards, and for vendors to adapt to them, not for standards bodies to act as rubber stamps for standards built to address the products of a single vendor. The bold language in the second item goes even further than normal in this regard.

The third and last part of the Terms is called the Programme of Work, and reads as follows (emphasis added by me once more):

1. To Produce a formal Standard for office productivity documents which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats (1) This includes:

a. Produce a standard which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats, including full and comprehensive documentation of those formats in the style of an international standard, with particular attention given to enabling the implementation of the Office Open XML Formats by a wide set of tools and platforms in order to foster interoperability across office productivity applications and with line-of-business systems

b. Produce a comprehensive set of W3C XML Schemas for the Office Open XML Formats, with particular attention given to self documentation of the schemas and testing of the XSDs for validation using a wide variety of XSD tools of the market and cross platform 

2. To contribute the Ecma Office Open XML Formats standards to ISO/IEC JTC 1 for approval and adoption by ISO and IEC.

Upon completion of the Previous Items, the role of the Technical Committee will be:

3. To assume responsibility for maintaining the ECMA Office Open XML standard
4. To evaluate and consider proposals for complementary or additional technology
5. To assume responsibility for the evolution of the ECMA standard while ensuring backward compatibility with the previous versions to guarantee continuity in the use of the current and future formats
6. To establish and maintain liaison with other ECMA TCs and with other Standards Development Organizations (SDOs) as appropriate to facilitate and promulgate the work of the TC

(1) to be submitted by Microsoft Corporation.

In summary, what I read here is the following: the working group would be told to take the offered schema and convert them, without change (or charge), into a standard, apply the Ecma imprimatur, and then submit them to ISO, so that users of Microsoft Office may seamlessly use their documents in conjunction with other conforming software, and so that Microsoft may obtain a unique market benefit. The working group would also be told not to diverge in any way from this goal in order to improve the standard, or to address the needs of the users of any other products in existence, or to accommodate the functionality of any other product, or to serve the interests of any other vendor, or of any customer that has needs that cannot be served by Microsoft Office.

I would submit that such a request is not consistent with the role of a standards body, but rather the diversion of an organization created to serve the needs of an industry to the unique demands of a single vendor. Were Ecma to be based in the United States, I would not be surprised if accepting such a charter would result (if discovered by the IRS) in the loss of the standards developer’s tax-exempt status.

I have also received a summary of objections raised to the Terms of Reference that I do not feel comfortable sharing here, but which indicate that there have been negative comments offered by at least some members regarding the substance of the Terms and the process followed to date, both internal and external to Ecma.

A final note: as expected, there is no mention in the charter of any special IPR requirements that would be imposede on any member of Ecma. This would indicate that while Microsoft may renew it’s royalty-free commitment, any other member(s) of Ecma with a relevant patent would have the right to charge a royalty to implement the resulting standard, or to require terms that would be inconsistent with open source licensing.

It will be interesting indeed to see what reception the Terms receive within Ecma, as well as how Ecma is viewed in the global standard setting community in the future (i.e., as a true standard setting body, or as a mere conduit for single vendors to ISO approval). The answer to that question will depend on whether the Terms, as offered, are approved.

Note: Pamela Jones has looked into the Ecma process and its rules, and has posted a detailed review of how things operate in that venue.

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