Defining the standards: Should Microsoft OOXML be an ISO standard?

ISO has rejected again Microsoft's latest bid to fast-track OOXML through the standards process. The software giant now has until March 29 to convince abstaining "P" countries to vote for the existing standard without additional debate, as well as convince a minimum of two nay-sayers to change.

In the last week of February, 100 delegates from 32 countries met to discuss how to improve the OOXML specification to bring it to the level required for validation by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Microsoft and its backer, ECMA, have until March 29 to make the changes required for 66 percent of ISO members to deem it worthy or see the proposal formally rejected. ECMA is a standards body that introduced "fast-tracking" to the ISO process. You can read more about EMCA here.

From ZDNet Australia:

Standards-makers had just one week to resolve comments on the OOXML specification. After it was rejected by a vote in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) last September, 3,500 comments were made. From these, 1100 suggested changes were distilled. Last week's "ballot resolution meeting" dealt with 20 percent of these comments, but nodded the rest through when it ran out of time.

The meeting in Geneva did not include a new ballot, but was intended to resolve issues, and give OOXML's proposers more time (until 29 March) to raise the necessary two-thirds majority to move to the next stage of the standards process. Fifty-three percent of delegates voted in favour of OOXML in September.

"Virtually every comment we processed did not survive unedited," said the head of the US delegation at the meeting, Frank Farance, implying that the ones which were passed on a "default vote" would very likely have needed similar work. Dealing with that many comments in a week was like trying to run a two-minute mile, he said.

The resulting specification is considered to be too poor for consideration as a standard. According to Andy Updegrove, an attorney who runs the ConsortiumInfo Standards blog, "Many many people around the world have tried very hard to make the OOXML adoption process work. It is very unfortunate that they were put to this predictably unsuccessful result through the self interest of a single vendor taking advantage of a permissive process that was never intended to be abused in this fashion. It would be highly inappropriate to compound this error by approving a clearly unfinished specification in the voting period ahead."

From the Inquirer:

According to ISO rules, Microsoft needed Yes votes from at least two-thirds (67%) of Participating (P level) ISO member countries, along with No votes from no more than one-fourth (25%) of all ISO member countries, both P level countries and Observer (O level) countries, in order to have its complex draft OOXML specification immediately approved for fast-track adoption as an ISO certified international standard for document formats.

There are 41 ISO P level countries, including both 30 long time "original" members and 11 recently joined "newbie" members. In addition, there are 46 ISO O level member countries, including 21 original members and 25 newbie members. Overall, there are 87 ISO member countries of ISO/IEC technical committee JTC1, Information Technology.

ISO's press release stated the voting results: "Neither of these criteria were achieved, with 53 % of votes cast by national bodies participating in ISO/IEC JTC 1 being positive and 26 % of [all] national votes cast being negative."

Microsoft might have pulled this off, but didn't. The vote wasn't even very close, as one can see by the ballot numbers. Here are the ISO P level countries' voting results:

Type Number Abstain Count Yes Pct No Pct

Original 30 8 22 8 36% 14 64%

Newbie 11 1 10 9 90% 1 10%

Total 41 9 32 17 53% 15 47%

Microsoft would have needed 22 Yes votes to carry the P level countries' balloting with 67%. Instead, it only got 17 votes, or 5 votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

There's been speculation that Microsoft "encouraged" many of the countries that recently upgraded to P level status on the ISO JTC1 Information Technology committee. Coincidentally or not, almost all of the newbies voted Yes in favour of approving OOXML, but the P level vote would still have fallen short even if all of the recent arrivals had voted Yes.

Microsoft has a great deal of work in front of it, despite the spin it's put on the issue. In order to move forward, it must have 67% of the "P" countries votes and no more than 25% voting "no." That is not currently the landscape. The changes must be complete by the March 29 deadline.

What is at stake here is the adoption of a standard that is considered too complex for fast-track adoption and is not currently in use anywhere -- even by Microsoft. The current OOXML standard used by Office 2007 is not compliant to the standards as they were revised. Open Document Format (ODF) is currently an ISO standard and is used as documented for ISO in Open Office.

The question now is if Microsoft can garner the votes required to qualify for fast-track status. To accomplish that, it would have to get each of the abstaining "P" delegates to vote yes and convince two countries that have voted no to change. That might be difficult.

Realistically, the question is whether or not there is a global need to add a document standard to the existing standard set. Regardless of what you might think about Microsoft, if you perceive that a need exists, that need should be met. Does OOXML add value to the existing landscape?

More information:

BRM Narrative (Tim Bray Blog)


XML spec editor: OOXML ISO process is "unadulterated BS" (Ars Technica)

ISO rejects Microsoft's OOXML as Standard (PC World)


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