Update on the US Vote on OOXML (and What Happens Next)

Updated 2:30, July 23:  INCITS has just issued a brief press release (reproduced in full at the end of this blog entry) which includes the following statement: 
“The INCITS Executive Board has not yet determined the U.S. position on this ballot,” said Jennifer Garner, Director Standards Programs for INCITS. “In accordance with INCITS policies, details of board discussions are not public. However, the committee expresses appreciation for the large number of stakeholder inputs received and acknowledges that full and careful consideration of the comments will take some time.” 
As you will recall, V1, the INCITS Technical Committee that addresses document format standards, was unable to reach consensus on a recommended US vote to either approve or reject DIS 29500, the draft ISO/IEC standard that describes Microsoft's OOXML formats. As expected, Microsoft is seeking to gain a US vote in favor of OOXML nonetheless by escalating consideration of its formats to the Executive Board of INCITS, which has the final say on the matter, subject to the formality of final endorsement by ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, of which INCITS is a member.
What will happen next will be complex procedurally, and will be difficult for journalists to follow, particularly since the steps that will be taken between now and the end of August that will result in the final US position will not be visible on a current basis. At the same time, there will likely be statements made and interviews given by various parties (most or all of whom will have a stake in the outcome) throughout this time period, each giving their particular spin on events as they transpire.

For this reason, I conducted an extensive interview over the weekend with an individual that is a member of both the V1 Technical Committee as well as the INCITS Executive Board in order to learn the steps that have been agreed upon to finalize the US position, so that we may all make the best sense of what we read and hear between now and the conclusion of the comment period. This individual has attended the meetings and conference calls in question in both V1 and the Executive Board, and is well versed with the procedures of INCITS, ANSI and ISO/IEC JTC1, as well as an employee of an IT vendor member of INCITS. In this entry, I will describe in detail the balloting process that I am told will follow from this point forward, as well as speculate on what the ultimate decision will be, based on events to date and the composition of the INCITS Executive Board.

Following the report by V1 that it had failed to achieve consensus, Microsoft requested a place on the agenda at the Executive Board meeting held in California on July 18 – 20, in order to make a short presentation on the V1 events. That presentation occurred on Thursday of last week. However, after giving the brief overview, the Microsoft representative made a motion not provided for on the agenda (which was immediately seconded by the Apple representative) that the Executive Board consider a written ballot of "Approval with Comments," with the comments in question being the 96 issues that the V1 members had succeeded in agreeing upon before ending their deliberations. That would have meant that some 400 additional comments (the more difficult ones upon which consensus had not been reached) that V1 had received from various sources would not have been submitted to ISO/IEC JTC1 if the ballot passed. 
This motion was defeated, but the Executive Board did agree to issue a written ballot of Approval that would, if adopted, be accompanied by all 498 comments. That ballot was issued to the Executive Board on Friday July 20, and will close on August 9, representing an expedited consideration schedule in comparison to usual practice, due to the short period of time remaining until the five month comment period will end. The next step will be a face-to-face meeting (if needed) on August 15 in Washington, D.C., with dial-in available for Executive Board members that cannot attend in person. During this meeting, an attempt will be made to resolve comments. A vote of "approval with comments" would mean that the United States could be counted in the plus column, whether the comments offered were addressed to INCITS’ satisfaction or not. The full INCITS voting reference for this ballot is "INCITS 2212 – US National Body vote to APPROVE ISO/IEC DIS 29500, Information technology – Office Open XML file formats with comments"
If the vote fails to receive the required majority, it has been agreed that a second written ballot will be issued, this time for "No Approval, with Comments." If passed, the comments would once again accompany the vote. In this case, there would be the possibility that if all, or a sufficient number, of the comments offered were reconciled to INCITS’ satisfaction, the US vote could be changed from a rejection to an approval. This vote would be held on an even tighter schedule, and would be initiated on August 16, and close on August 23. Once again, a reconciliation meeting has been scheduled, this time for August 29, and the meeting would be held in New York City, with dial in participation permitted once again.
The final position of INCITS – whether Approve with Comments, No Approval with Comments, or failure to achieve consensus, must be reported to ANSI by Thursday, August 30, so that the US position can be reported to ISO/IEC JTC 1 by the September 2 deadline. 
The calculation of the voting on such ballots is somewhat complex. There are sixteen members on the INCITS Executive Board, and the voting rules of that body require a three-step calculation, as follows:
  • First, there must be nine votes in favor of the vote (a majority of the Executive Board). If fewer are received, the vote fails
  • Second, if there are any abstentions, these abstentions must be subtracted from the total number of votes cast for, against, or abstaining
  • Of that reduced number, two thirds must be votes to approve
For example, if there is even one abstention, it would take eleven votes to approve in order for the vote to pass rather than nine.
The membership of the Executive Board is currently as follows:
10 Business (Large/Small Business):
Apple, Inc.
Farance, Inc.
Sony Electronics
6 Non-Business (three Government and three SDOs):  
EIA (Electronics Industry Alliance)
US Department of Defense (DoD)
US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
[Update 7/24/07:  A reader pointed me to this link at the INCITS site, which indicatest that the list given to me was out of date.  According to that link, the following are two more members of the INCITS Executive Board:  Adobe Systems, Inc., and AIM Global Inc., a consortium.  The voting numbers I used above would therefore need to be adjusted accordingly, and would now be 10 to approve instead of 9, and presumably 12 in the affirmative in the case of one abstention.]
[Update 8/1/07:  I’ve talked to my source, and there is a meeting attendance requirement that applies to voting by the NCITS Executive Board.  In this case, there are 16, as originally reported, rather than 18 members of the EB that are entitled to vote on this specification.]
By all accounts, those on the Executive Board will be attempting to act responsibly and impartially. Given the very large number of comments that have been offered as issues relating to OOXML and the slow progress encountered in reaching consensus upon them (I am told that resolving two of them consumed three hours of meeting time), it appears unlikely that a vote of "Approval with comments" is likely, when it is remembered that such a vote would indicate that the United States would fine it acceptable for OOXML to become an ISO/IEC standard if none of these objections were to be resolved. The agreement upon a schedule that would accommodate a vote not to approve as well would seem to indicate that others are of the same opinion.
What will happen next remains to be seen, but it has become increasingly clear in the United States as well as elsewhere around the world that the sheer length of the OOXML specification and the speed with which it has been pushed through the process by Microsoft may be working against its sponsor. Many National Body members that do not have an axe to grind on either side of the competitive landscape are simply troubled by the number of technical issues that they believe must be addressed in order to responsibly vote to approve OOXML.
This issue may best be illustrated by the fact that most of the c. 17,000 already adopted ISO standards are only 25 – 40 pages long, and a standard normally takes three to four years to move through the five stages of a full ISO adoption cycle. In contrast, OOXML is over 6,000 pages long, and Microsoft is attempting to move it through both Ecma and ISO/IEC JTC1 in less than two years. Given the number of dependencies on other Microsoft technology, lack of detail describing some required elements, and other technical issues that have been identified, those charged with evaluating and voting on OOXML are having difficulty voting to approve, regardless of their opinion on whether there should or should not be two format standards. 
Microsoft may have exacerbated this situation rather than eased it when it decided earlier this year to press forward without productively addressing the issues that were raised during the Contradictions period. Had it chosen to respond to these problems then, it could have shortened the list of issues that are troubling National Body representatives in the United States and elsewhere. I am told that Microsoft has continued its full court press in other National Bodies through the current review period, and has sought to cut comment periods in some countries in an effort to move as quickly as possible to a vote to approve. 
Not only has this allowed even less time for responsible review of OOXML, but this "cowboy" effort by a dominant United States IT company to force the local process (and often to populate it with its business partners) has not always sold well abroad. A more sensitive, locally-aware, collaborative approach might have worked better than the heavy handed strategy that appears to be backfiring in countries like Portugal and South Africa.

It will be interesting to see how the voting goes in the weeks ahead.  From a free flow of information perspective, it will also be interesting to see what information on the voting reaches the press when, and from whom. And, of course, with what spin.

Update:  Here is the text of the INCITS press release just issued:

INCITS Executive Board Considers U.S. Position for OOXML Letter Ballot
Contact: Jennifer Garner
Washington, D.C. – July 23, 2007 – The InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) Executive Board met last week to discuss the U.S. position on the upcoming ISO/IEC JTC 1 letter ballot for Draft International Standard (DIS) 29500, “Information technology – Office Open XML file formats”. 
“The INCITS Executive Board has not yet determined the U.S. position on this ballot,” said Jennifer Garner, Director Standards Programs for INCITS. “In accordance with INCITS policies, details of board discussions are not public. However, the committee expresses appreciation for the large number of stakeholder inputs received and acknowledges that full and careful consideration of the comments will take some time.” 
Garner added that the INCITS process to develop a finalized U.S. position will meet the international deadline of September 2, 2007.
Since its establishment in 1961, the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) has provided the forum of choice for information technology developers, producers and users for the creation and maintenance of ICT standards. The mission of INCITS is to promote the effective use of Information and Communication Technology through standardization in a way that balances the interests of all stakeholders and increases the global competitiveness of the member organizations. INCITS serves as the U.S. Technical Advisory Group for ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1, which is responsible for international standardization in the field of information technology. Membership in INCITS is open to all stakeholders. Currently INCITS is comprised of 1700 member organizations from 13 countries. The INCITS Executive Board has 18 member organizations including representation from the ICT industry’s leading hardware and software providers.
INCITS and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) are jointly accredited by, and operate under rules approved by, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). These rules are designed to ensure that voluntary standards are developed by the consensus of directly and materially affected interests. For further information, please contact INCITS, 1250 Eye St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005 (www.incits.org).

For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

subscribe to the free Consortium Standards Bulletin

Comments (7)

  1. I would had expected INCITS to have an agenda on the wording on the ballot paper for to send out for voting, given that V1 had its say already and especially since it did not reach a concensus. Therefore surely everyone is expecting that Microsoft will table an "unexpected" motion for "Yes with comments" the way they did? Could it be that IBM simply was not fast enough to table a motion calling for "No with comments"?


  2. In reply to the above comment: I’d rather not go into too much detail on what I was told on a blow by blow basis, but suffice it to say that Microsoft’s specific actions were not anticipated.  The slides they presented were not made available until after the meeting, nor was the vote presented in advance.

    It’s worth keeping in mind that the standards process isn’t run by experienced parliamentarians, and most of the people on these committees get to know each other pretty well over time.  In many ways it’s more collegial than adversarial, despite competitor tensions, than a strict exercise in Robert’s Rules of Order.  Also, if you’re too adamant in one situation, you’d better really know your rules of order the next time, when you’d like people to cut you a bit of slack.

    As a result, and especially if you have a few other people to support you, it’s often easy to carry things along on a more ad hoc than strict basis.

      –  Andy

  3. Is it worthwhile at this point to send letters/emails to the INCITS EB, and/or to ANSI, in order to remind them of their responsibilities to the public in this matter?

    • Good question.  I don’t know that it would do too much good, as given the current schedule, I expect that you would need to email the individual EB members in order for your thoughts to reach them, and I can’t point you to a public list of members with email addresses.  You could check out the INCITS Web site and look for one, though, and might luck out.  If you were to contact anyone, I’d recommend the non-business members in particular.

        –  Andy

  4. Actually would not be "Disapproval without comments" — unconditional disapproval.  Better that ISO simply refuse to approve DIS-29500.

    What would be much, much worse would be a ballot resolution process where the draft standard either lingered for years (very likely considering the amount of work to be done, assuming that the process starts.)  Worst of all would be a final IS-29500 that is approved with changes making MSO2K7 non-compliant.

    However, having tracked the discussions in V1, it looks to me as though MS may have hung themselves on their original SCOPE statement.  They’ve sold ECMA-376 as a vehicle for compatibility with previous file formats (oddly, theirs) but the mapping isn’t there.  The lack of that mapping appears to be a major sticking point in several NBs, so MS may either have to document their previous formats (assuming they can, a point not in evidence) or admit to failing their SCOPE — which is pretty much death in a proposed standard.

    • Thanks for bringing this to my attention, although I only count 18 names on the list at the link, not 22 (the added ones are Adobe and AIM Global).  I’ll update my blog entry.

        –  Andy

Comments are closed.