UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The George Bush and Microsoft Parallels

Posted by Brian Kelly on 5 Sep 2008

Back in May 2008 I published a blog post entitled George Bush IS President And Microsoft’s Office Open XML Format IS An ISO Standard which described how Microsoft’s Open Office XML (OOXML) had been approved as an ISO standard. However in the period between first writing the post and then publishing it South Africa, Brazil, India and Venezuela lodged appeals against this decision claiming that the voting process was marred by irregularities. So until ISO had addressed these appeals we could say that OOXML was not an ISO standard. However as described in an article on OOXML Gets Final Nod After Standards Body Rejects Appeals ISO has now has formally rejected these appeal.

The analogy I drew with George W Bush was even more appropriate than I had anticipated – just as there were doubts over the legitimacy of Bush’s first election victory which were eventually rejected, so the appeals against the legitimacy over the standardisation of OOXML have been rejected, with OOXML now becoming an official ISO standard. I suspect many readers of this blog would have preferred it if neither of these decisions had happened, but they have.

Whether this is the end of the matter is not yet clear: a article on CONSEGI 2008 Declaration — Open Letter to ISO Reveals More OOXML Issues published on the Grocklaw site describes how South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay and Cuba have signed and sent an open letter to ISO condemning this decision. Further information about the standardisation process is available in a Wikipedia article on Standardization of Office Open XML.

But although the standardisation process may have been flawed with, no doubt, political skullduggery going on, the technical merits of the standards questionable and the likelihood that the standard will actually be implemented by vendors questioned by some, we now, I would say, have to accept that it is an ISO standard. But as I’ve argued for other reasons recently, we should in any case be questioning the significance and merits of open standards much more questioningly than we have done in the past, when slogans such as ‘interoperability though open standards’ seem to have been used to stifle discussions and debates on the extent to which open standards actually deliver their stated goals.

It was also pleasing  to read Ross Gardler, manager of the JISC OSS Watch service’s comment on my recent post in which suggests that “it is possible to diverge from [open] standards without enforcing locking. This is a huge advantage when it takes so long for standards to be specified and agreed by committees and standards bodies” – he could, of course, have added caveats regarding the political nature of  standardisation processes.

I therefore welcome Ross’s statement that “OSS Watch would be happy to explore these ideas further. Just what are the advantages and disadvantages of formalised standards against open implementations of data formats?” And over the next few weeks I will publish a number of posts in which I’ll invite discussions on  standards issues.

For this post, however, I’d welcome comments specifically on the OOXML standardisation process and the implications of ISO’s decision.  My view is that it’s a good thing when proprietary formats become standardised (as has also happened recently with the standardisation of Adobe’s PDF format which was announced on 2 July 2008) as this can be beneficial for, for example, long term preservation. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that the format will be appropriate in many circumstances – we do need to decouple the view that because an open standard is available in a particular area that it should necessarily be deployed, I feel.

5 Responses to “The George Bush and Microsoft Parallels”

  1. I think that what ISO has done in allowing this manipulation to occur is to cast doubt on the proposition that “An ‘ISO standard’ is a standard.”

    Since that is a bit like casting doubt on the proposition that “A ‘Boeing airplane’ is an airplane” you can see how this might have some long term ripple effects that will have an impact far outside the software industry.

  2. Alex Brown said

    The George Bush vote was very close, but in contrast OOXML was approved by a comfortable margin – 75% of the JTC 1 participating member votes were cast positive; only 14% of the total of national member body votes were cast negative. In political voting terms, that is a landslide.

    You refer to “the view that because an open standard is available in a particular area that it should necessarily be deployed”. I’m not sure one finds that view very much in the wild, and where it exists it is dumb. All standards bodies have their fair share of dud standards which are best avoided. The main benefit of OOXML’s standardization comes for those who (for better or worse) find themselves tied in practice to Microsoft Office infrastructure, and for whom having the file formats documented and stabilized will be much better than the recent past when they were neither of those things.

  3. Hi Alex
    You suggest that the view that “because an open standard is available in a particular area that it should necessarily be deployed” doesn’t occur very much in the wild and where it exists it is dumb.

    Although I’d agree with the second point, I think there is a danger that policy makers may be willing to mandate open standards because they have gone through a standardisation process (such as ISO’s) even though the process may be flawed, the deployment of the standard difficult, etc. For example I have come across standardisation acceptance models which give a high value on the maturity and significance of the standardisation body itself – which would rate ISO standards highly.

    Hence my belief that we need to be more upfront about the open standards which are good (useful, usable and used) and those which aren’t.

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