New doubts about ISO's fast-track standardisation of Microsoft OOXML
An internal document of the International Standards Organization (ISO) that found its way late last week on to the Wikileaks whistle-blower platform raises further questions about the choice of a fast-track certification for Microsoft's OOXML document format. The paper, by Joint Technical Committee No. 1 (JTC 1) of the Geneva standards organization, which dates back to July 2007, says the fast track procedure chosen for certifying Microsoft's document format is only intended for the acceptance of unaltered standards and that a standard not accepted in its original form, while not to be regarded as "2nd class" or illegitimate, should be put through the normal five-stage standardisation process, should necessary corrections be identified in advance. The fast-track process, it says, is intended for making changes to an original draft.
Microsoft initially had OOXML certified by the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA). But even during that process, in late 2006, IBM, not exactly a lightweight member of the computer industry, voted against adoption of the standard. Strong criticism was being expressed even then that the OOXML specification was being dictated by an individual manufacturer and no one else was able to implement it yet. It then began to emerge that far-reaching changes to Microsoft's 9000-page draft would probably be required for it to achieve ISO standardisation. Nevertheless, in partnership with the ECMA, Microsoft initiated the fast-track procedure for acceptance of OOXML as an ISO standard.
The document by ISO's Joint Technical Committee No. 1, on the other hand, insists that any specification intended for swift adoption must be worth considering as "a useful contribution to the worldwide community as it stands". The author of the report emphasises once more that this is an indispensable basic condition for fast-track handling, and any pre-conditions, obstacles or anticipated revisions bar this route, in accordance with the purpose of an international standard, which is to stimulate world trade. He further points out that this basic consideration, which he calls "democratic and transparent", derives from the rules of the ISO and its sister organisation, the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission). Previously, he says, only in one exceptional case had a specification with easily manageable amendments been sent off immediately for standardisation via the fast track route.
ISO's member countries rejected OOXML on its first submission. They made many technical comments, but only a small amount of these could be dealt with directly in the course of a one-week discussion of objections in Geneva. Most of the remaining proposed changes were simply waved through without amendment by the delegates at the end of their discussions. The standardisation process then came under pressure. Four member states officially protested on the basis of formal reservations about the strongly contested certification procedure, which was also accompanied by reports of irregularities, causing the ISO initially to put the specification on ice. ISO still has not published a revised version of OOXML, and this is preventing the submission of detailed objections to its content.
According to observers of the process, the directors of the ISO and IEC have now acknowledged objections from Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela as formally correct. The process is now going through two management advisory committees of the two organisations, en route to a final decision. According to those committees, the four countries will be called upon to suggest possible solutions. Consideration is now being given to setting up a panel to mediate between the main parties concerned. This would give both sides a hearing and, in the event of failure to achieve agreement, would report to the heads of ISO and IEC within three months. On this basis, the two management advisory committees would then have the last word.
On document formats and their standardisation, see also:
- ISO puts standard for Microsoft's OOXML document formats on hold
- Brazil and India lodge appeal against ISO standardisation of OOXML
- Microsoft will support Open Document Format (ODF)
- Becta takes complaint against Microsoft to the EC
- ISO makes Microsoft's OOXML document format an official standard
- Microsoft’s OOXML document format will be ISO standard