Open letter to ISO/IEC from 6 countries on OOXML fiasco

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News came out over the weekend that representatives from six countries—Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Cuba—have written an open letter to the ISO and IEC criticizing the handling of the OOXML appeals.

See, for example,

Several of these, e.g., Groklaw, contain the text of the letter.

I had hoped for better from the ISO and IEC. I had hoped that they would not try to force the opinions of the executives on the boards considering the appeals. I had hoped that ISO and IEC would understand that refusing to give a fair hearing to the concerns of emerging economies would be neither logical nor sensible.

I’m usually an optimist but in situation after situation, the response has always been “we are right and—wait a minute until we find it—we have a rule which justifies our forcing OOXML through the system.”

With the actions of the ISO and IEC, and with this letter from the countries, we’re seeing a serious backlash to the role of these standards bodies in creating and approving IT standards. That is, while they’ve created thousands of standards for safety, mining, agriculture, and other areas, perhaps people are now shifting away from thinking that these groups should have anything to do with IT and interoperability standards.

With the actions of the ISO and IEC, I think people have every reason to think that way. I feel that way.

So what will fill this void? Will the new leadership that will sit at the top of the ISO in 2009 make the necessary changes to help it regain its reputation in the IT world? Or will Fortress ISO continue to maintain its infallibility in all things OOXML-wise?

Will a new organization rise up to take the place of the ISO for IT standards?

Is it just the wrong model entirely for IT standards meant for global use?

What would an ISO that “gets ‘open'” even look like?

I know about the ISO, IEC, and WTO. Reviewing the language, I didn’t notice anything about it being in place or relevant “forever and ever and ever and ever.”

So here are a few things to remember about what’s coming out of the OOXML fiasco and how ISO/IEC handled it:

  • There are a lot of very angry people out there, and these people are willing to work for significant change.
  • These people are not going away, and the ISO and IEC can’t just “wait them out.”
  • People are in this for the long haul. Some things can be done quickly, but if others take years, then people are committed to work on them however long it takes.
  • ISO and IEC have damaged their reputations and caused people to question seriously their relevance to IT interoperability standards in important emerging economies.
  • Change at this point in inevitable.


  1. Implicit in ISO flippant response to these countries’ MS-OOXML appeals is the feeling that many people around the world wasted two years of their life to filtering through the morass the Microsoft plopped on the table. The next time you have to ask yourself, who will be willing to take the time — better, who HAS the time! — to submit to another corporate, proprietary standard being rushed through over any and all objections?

    And let’s be frank: if MS-OOXML can be approved, I’d like to see what will be rejected in the future. Sorta feels like you’re watching an NBA game where the officials have already placed their bets!

  2. …and stuffed the teams with weak players.

  3. I view what happened as a kind of ‘business optimization’ performed by Microsoft.

    Some business optimizations are legitimate, useful, and necessary; for example, setting your price list the way you like it, and having a discount structure to give the salesman the flexibility he or she needs.

    Others are engaged in, but meaningless to the rest of the world; for example, attempting to saturate assorted web sites with ‘Search Engine Optimization Spam’ in order to get your business web site to the top of the list in a Google search.

    When you have tens of billions of dollars in the bank, how do you tell the difference ? Who guards the ‘public interest’ against all of the ‘private interests’ that surround us ?

  4. But if an alternate organization is based on national standards organizations, it will have the same members as ISO or JTC1. So why would you expect the results to be particularly different? It was the NBs who voted in the fast-track rules, after all, and the NBs who voted to accept IS29500 with the BRM fixes.

    So are you suggesting that all national standards bodies should be replaced too? Or just a new organization which vets national bodies according to their votes on particular issues before they let them in? Since those seem rather impractical, aren’t you really just trying to promote the rise of industry consortia in which corporations and their employeess have member voting rights?

    That would entrench the vendor-side imbalance more than the current situation: at the end of the day, more power for the Microsofts and the IBMs.

    What is your practical alternative? Just another checklist? More waffle about openness while you actually try to reduce independent review of committees your organization has dominated? To get the kind of world which some people want, where there is only one standard for everything and all countries are forced to use it, would require a 180 degree change to the WTO TBT agreements, not just some ISO-with-teeth replacement. I am sure you don’t see how conflicted your position is, though.

    Patrick Durusau’s argument here is that what is needed is focussed action to correct the JTC1 Directives (and perhaps the ISO Directives): indeed, he thinks these appeals are actually counter productive to the cause of any reforms of JTC1 and ISO. At the Standards Australia meetings earlier on in the year, the NB staff asked for volunteers to work on these kind of fixes and to get involved, and they got no response. (In Australia, the NB is not a government institution and participation has been free with suitable industry or sector or organization affiliation: volunteerism is high.)

    Governments who think the result on IS29500 betrays some deeper procedural or institutional problems need to be asking themselves whether they have bothered to participate with representatives over the last years. Issues like teleconferencing or bilocated meetings, where the Directives impose difficulties on would-be participants from peripheral regions (such as my own) could be trivially fixed, if there was sufficient buy-in and will from National Bodies.

  5. @Rick: I’m open to all suggestions, and many are being considered right now by a lot of people.

  6. Just imagine, if at the dawn of the DVD era, people had got together at ISO and persuaded ISO to issue a standard for the VHS videotape. That’s more or less what happened earlier this year at the BRM.

    Yes, at the dawn of the DVD era, many businesses were making a lot of money from VHS videotapes and related products and services; and they were widely deployed to consumers, too. Even if you discount manufacturers of VCRs and tapes, there were Disney, Blockbuster, and so on; nothing to do with IBM and Microsoft.

    But the future belonged to the DVD.

  7. I would note the box to add a comment says “mail”, not email. But I didn’t go postal.

    That said, I wrote one of the three interoperable implementations for RFC-2440 (open PGP). It was opensourced, and the source to the other two was published, and GPG is available in most Linux distributions, and PGP Inc’s stuff will talk to it.

    ISO is senile and needs to be sent to their resting place. Their last shot at relevance has just expired.

    For OOXML, there is a 6000+ page blob which no one has actually implemented, assuming you can implement something full of ambiguities, lacunae, and contradictions.

    For ODF, there are MULTIPLE opensource implementations, and a few (IBM/Lotus) proprietary ones. It isn’t perfect, but the entire point is that having live source allows you to see HOW SOMEONE ELSE INTERPRETS it.

    Apparently there are nightmarish things in the minutiae of spreadsheets for BOTH. So what approach to build your app? OOXML – Get every version of Excel you can and write gazillions of test cases and hope it isn’t “fixed” or changed in the next version. ODF – look at OO.o and Koffice and perhaps Gnumeric and see what they did and are doing. If there are ambiguities, and – Aaagh! they handle things differently, submit bug reports and patches.

    In a short time – and there is an OASIS something going on to fix any problems in ODF but this is following not leading – ODF will be unified and functional and everything will “just work”. OOXML will likely never actually correspond to any version of MSOffice, and will fragment so that each version of OOXML will handle things just enough differently to create problems.

    Having two implementations with source (at least one open) that fully interoperate is better than any standard. Having three (assuming they aren’t all spaghetti code) all but negates the need for any standard.

    ISO might stay around a while. So will phones with breaker dials connected via copper. And NTSC televisions. The Vacuum tube can still be found too. But all are really obsolete. Like an elder who you would be embarrassed at except for their age, you are polite to them, but go ahead and do the new and right thing.

    ISO has been shown to be too brittle to be a rubber stamp and have shattered in the attempt.

    Sharing knowledge and building on others work is now the way to accomplish great things. We can stand on the shoulders of giants – but get no higher than the giant permits. Instead we can stand on each others shoulders and build to unimagined heights.

  8. @Chris: “Just imagine, if at the dawn of the DVD era, people had got together at ISO and persuaded ISO to issue a standard for the VHS videotape. That’s more or less what happened earlier this year at the BRM.”

    Why not? VHS came out in 1995 and sales of DVDs only surpsassed sales of VHW in 2003, according to Wikipedia. But apart from the details, standards are still legitimate, even if for managing the end of life of a technology. Indeed, technologies which are not changing are probably prime candidates for easy standardization, since no-one is interested in tinkering with them.

    When I came started work at a new office in Sydney in about 1993, there was a computer society in the next door offices. They playfully displayed a magazine article in their Window which said “UNIX is dead” (because of the whizz bang PC OS of the day, perhaps OS/2). It seems likely that OOXML will follow the usual 10 year support cycle that MS uses. The number one thing that will make OOXML go away is for ODF to have (and for ODF implementations to support) better coverage of OOXML features. With IS29500, these are much more out in the open than they were before.

  9. “Change at this point in inevitable.”

    Probably but possibly not what you are predicting. This is a big emotional vectoring game at this point and these are unstable and subject to flipping poles very quickly.

    Two weeks ago, all one read was that Obama was “inevitable”. Today McCain is up. Why? Sarah Palin. There was an unaccounted for population with unstable affinity to Obama: white women.

    I don’t mean to start a political debate. I simply want to point out an example where emotional vectoring failed to produce the predicted results because the population statistical predictions were wrong with respect to the overall domain affinities. A new attractor entered the system and the bodies orbiting the attractors changed their paths overnight.

    Change may be inevitable. That doesn’t make it controllable or predictable. I do believe this: if we are to have a good outcome, enlightened people are going to have to take responsibility for rewiring their own brains instead of gathering en masse to howl at the moon. Far too much of what I’ve seen in this ODF/OOXML debate smacks of that and the companies who have played this game are far more responsible for its current shape than ISO. If we want a better outcome, shaping common goals is far more important than setting up another round of (let’s kill off the old) and opportunism (if we can get OOXML or ODF passed, our numbers are projected to be).

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