A year ago, many words were written (including by me) on why Microsoft may have chosen Ecma to package Microsoft's Office Open XML formats as a standard. Now that Ecma has finished that project and adopted the result, there's additional data to examine that sheds some light on that question. That will be my topic today, and for the next several entries.
About two weeks ago I wrote a related entry called Ecma Approves OOXML – What Does it all Mean? In that entry, I tried to give an even handed overview (admittedly, as I see it) of how the Ecma approval of Microsoft's XML formats fits into the grand scheme of things. The bottom line was that I did not think that the Ecma action was very significant, given the circumstances under which it had been achieved.
That post elicited the following question from a reader:
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?
I tried to give that question an even handed response as well – because in fact it's common practice for most companies to engage in the equivalent of what a lawyer would call "forum shopping:" looking for the court and judge they think will most likely rule in her favor. My response therefore read as follows:
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.
This isn’t just speculation on my part, as in my role as counsel to many standard setting consortia I’ve sometimes been brought into the discussion of whether to accept a given submission under the circumstances, or on the terms offered. Sometimes the answer has been “no,” or “yes, but only if you withdraw these conditions, and/or give these additional assurances.” No organization that sets open standards wants to gain a reputation as being a “rubber stamp,” as such a reputation, once it attaches, is hard to shake.
But perhaps that’s not always the case. With c. 500 ITC standard setting organizations in operation, all vying for members, projects and dues, perhaps gaining a reputation for being a rubber stamp might represent an attractive business plan?
I decided to take a look at the Ecma site to see what kind of evidence I might find one way or the other on that question. Here’s what I found, and you can form your own conclusions.
First, let’s take a look at the News section of the Ecma site, to see what Ecma wants the world to think, as demonstrated by its own carefully crafted press releases. Ecma has adopted over 365 standards and 90 Technical Reports since its formation in May of 1961. With that as a backdrop, let’s see how much emphasis Ecma has placed on this single standard development working group since Microsoft contributed the OOXML specification to Ecma in November of 2005.
Here are the titles of all of the press releases that Ecma has issued in the past six months:
December 7, 2006: Ecma International approves Office Open XML standard
November 29, 2006: CompTIA approves the Open XML Open Standard
October 23, 2006: White Paper on Office Open XML
October 9, 2006: Office Open XML Formats (TC45) – Final Draft
September 28, 2006: Last results about Office Open XML Formats (TC45)
August 23, 2006: Office Open XML Formats (TC45) – Intermediate Draft 1.4
July 25, 2006: Last results about Office Open XML Formats (TC45)
If you look at the next six months, you’ll find three press releases announcing adoptions of work product at General Assemblies, and four more press releases about OOXML. The final count? Even though Ecma approved 32 different standards during this time period, the Ecma site lists a total of eleven different press releases relating to the OOXML project, and only one relating to any other single technical project. So it would appear that either Ecma doesn’t think that much of what it’s doing these days is very important, or believes that there is a great deal to be gained from being associated with the OOXML project – or both.
This might reasonably lead one to conclude that Ecma placed a high value on acquiring the OOXML project at the outset, when the Programme of Work for the Technical Committee was written. That Programme, you may recall, was not to create a standard for office productivity software formats, but instead:
To Produce a formal Standard for office productivity documents which is fully compatible with the [Microsoft] Office Open XML Formats.
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