Thursday, March 6, 2008

Playing Fast and Loose

After spending the last several months reading what a lot of people have to say about the effort to obtain ISO adoption of the Open XML document format as an international standard, I’ve decided it is time for me to have my own say. I must point out that the views contained in the writings on this blog are my own, not influenced by any other party, and are expressed under a nom de plume, in a great and respected tradition followed by many of history’s great luminaries and dissidents.

I define myself as a dissident as meaning, in some definitions, characterized by departure from accepted beliefs or standards. Judging by much of the commentary floating around regarding Open XML, I think it is most certainly fair to say that my views depart quite sharply from the opinions being put forth as common and accepted “wisdom.” Especially following last week’s Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva, it is quite amazing at the propaganda that is being repeated as if it were gospel. I have watched the Open XML standardization process over the last year and a half rather dispassionately. Seeing it for what it is, which is a long accepted and well-defined process that has resulted in thousands of international standards being created over the years. The great thing about processes such as the one that ISO administers, especially those that have passed the test of time, is that they generally work and tend to be tamper-proof. The idea that any one not-so-disinterested party can unduly influence the process is quite laughable. However, since ISO and IEC are not doing a particularly effective job of defending the credibility of themselves and their process, I feel a need to speak up.

The interesting thing about open processes is that fools speak with the same weight as sages. I see the loudest and most off-base criticism coming from individuals who profess to have great experience in international standards, but for all their verbosity I am left wondering why in God’s name they still get paid by anyone to be involved in a process they obviously do not understand or respect. Because that is the cold hard truth folks: Everyone is getting paid by someone to do standards work. If we move forward from this immutable truth, the next question that comes to mind is, who is accepting extra perks for their work, and then not disclosing this when they voice their opposition to Open XML? With all of the eyes on this process, nobody seems to come up with any credible accusations of misdeeds by pro-Open XML partisans at the BRM, but nobody even tries to expose those national body delegates who stayed in hotel rooms at the Intercontinental Hotel, secured by the corporation bankrolling the anti-Open XML camp. Those same delegates that then expressed opposition to Open XML, even when it caused them to stray outside the mandate given them by their national bodies, and breaking the long-honored confidentiality rules of ISO itself.

There are a lot of voices in this debate. The loudest come from individuals opposed to Open XML, for commercial reasons and otherwise. Much of the post-BRM commentary comes from individuals who speak for themselves but wrongly cloak themselves in the legitimacy of their national bodies. What gets missed in this emotional free-for-all is that several national bodies have released official statements professing their satisfaction with the process. Sovereign nations such as New Zealand, Denmark and Norway, along with ISO and the BRM convener themselves have all publicly stated their comfort in the way the BRM was conducted. Even the ODF Project Editor, arguably not disposed to support another document format, has publicly stated that he supports ISO adoption of Open XML.

There is also a lot of bandying about of the numbers. 70% this and 80% that. There’s a great saying that if you torture numbers, they’ll confess to anything. Such is the case here. Anti-Open XML partisans claim that 80% of the dispositions at the BRM were not even discussed and were accepted by ballot. But they fail to point out that there were other options put on the table to deal with the high number of dispositions, and that none of the alternatives was remotely popular. They also fail to point out that delegations could, and did, pull out specific issues of concern that were treated as exceptions to their ballot. These same partisans complain loudly that national bodies could not be expected to be experts on all of the dispositions at hand. But fail to recognize that nobody ever expected them to. Delegations were supposed to be experts on the issues of importance to them, and with more than 100 people in the room, there can be a high level of comfort that each disposition received due diligence from national bodies, and that with such a high volume of discussion, nothing was rubber-stamped. Further, it is fairly disingenuous to claim that the addition of a comma required the same scrutiny that accessibility concerns did. Each national body got multiple chances to raise issues they were concerned about, and they did. Issues such as accessibility, splitting the specification into multiple parts, and issues with the schema were discussed at length, and viable compromises were reached.

I get rather aggravated by some of the voices out there who like to contrast the process of ODF standardization and Open XML. It might make an interesting case study if it was in any way relevant, and if those voices were giving us the whole truth. They like to point out that ODF “sailed” through the ISO process, and that no BRM was even needed. What they don’t tell us is that there were several countries that voted approval with comments, under the impression that those comments would be addressed before final adoption. Then when the shenanigans were finished, and a BRM was determined unnecessary, those same national bodies ended up with a standard that did not address their concerns. These national bodies are now understandably hesitant to approve something without ensuring that their concerns are addressed up front, entirely because they got bamboozled by the commercial ODF crowd the last time around.

Now what remains is for national bodies to reconsider their votes from September 2nd, and determine whether to change from Disapproval or Abstain to Approval. While I am sure that the anti-Open XML crowd is busy trying to convince countries that voted to Approve Open XML in September to change to Disapproval, those national bodies should be wary. There is only one example of a vote changing from Approve to Disapprove in all of ISO history, and it would be inappropriate for that to become standard practice now (pun intended). In all fairness, some national bodies may feel that not all of their concerns were addressed adequately. But they should measure that against the importance of having a widely used document format in the ISO and not controlled by a single entity. They should weigh the significance of having a say in the future development of that specification, against the tendency to desire immediate gratification. I am quite content to continue to watch this process, and hope that whatever results is from a fair process, not influenced by emotion or issues that have no business in a standards discussion.

On a final note, there is a lot of the word “shame” being thrown around in this post-BRM period. Those loud partisans throwing invective and accusations at Microsoft for having the temerity to support something through the ISO process. For being consistent in its support for something it obviously values and believes in. For allowing the world to finally have a voice in how it develops the technology that holds the vast majority of the world’s data. Shameful indeed. My simple advice to those who use that word is: Look in the mirror. Microsoft has done nothing but be transparent in its efforts, and in so doing has honored the ISO process and shown a great deal of respect to the whole world. Those who attack the process, the company and the document format, while cloaking themselves in what is obviously ineffective years of experience, have been the most shameful and damaging of all.

Sorry for the length of this blog post. I had a lot on my mind. I plan to post occasionally, and whenever the mood strikes me. Please feel free to comment. I believe that lively discussion and open discourse generally lead to the best outcomes. If you decide to make a post, please take note that histrionics and bad grammar won’t be tolerated. Show some respect for yourself and others if you decide to speak here.

P.S. I think everyone involved in this discussion owes Alex Brown a big round of thanks. He had a tough job to do, and by all accounts I’ve heard was a smashing success as BRM Convenor. Alex, I hope you get to see this. Well done!

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