Wednesday, June 11, 2008

ISO puts OOXML on hold?

(Disclaimer: I am not pushing any opinion, just trying to wade through the facts).

There is a confusing issue happening with OOXML, the Microsoft-proposed ISO (apparently) standard for XML Office Documents. In the past, many people feel it has been rushed into the standards process and represents a sham in the standards development industry. I disagree slightly with this view as most SDOs have very transparent and accountable processes in place. ISO's processes are documented. Microsoft has the same ability to use the rules and processes as others do. I have not seen any concrete evidence that they have violated the standards process, only vague accusations. If you have any concrete examples, please leave them here as comments with links.

For those who have not been following along, OOXML is a format for Microsoft Office (like Microsoft word or *.doc format except in XML and zipped). It has been proposed as a standard at ISO and "fast tracked" to become an ISO standard. ISO itself has rules in place which state that only one official standard shall exist for each category or domain/purpose. Apparently the purpose and scope of OOXML is sufficiently different from the Open Document Format (an OASIS standard and open format supported by IBM, Sun and many others such as ISO has approved the standard as noted here:

Nevertheless, on Slashdot this story appeared yesterday:

"schliz alerts us that ISO, in response to the four appeals (Venezuela, India, Brazil, South Africa) filed in recent weeks, has put the OOXML standardization process on hold. Here is ISO's press release, which says that ISO/IEC DIS 29500 will not be published for at least "several months" while the appeals process goes forward."

This was followed by a somewhat cryptic update:

"Update: 06/11 10:13 GMT by KD : Reader Alsee points out that the fourth officially recognized appealing country is Venezuela, not Denmark as originally stated. The protests of Denmark and Norway are being disregarded, as they do not come from the administrative heads of their national organizations."

Now I am confused too. The official ISO release clearly states:

"Four national standards body members of ISO and IEC – Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela – have submitted appeals against the recent approval of ISO/IEC DIS 29500, Information technology – Office Open XML formats, as an ISO/IEC International Standard."

A letter in Danish ( seems to be made incorrectly (officially I think you have to use English, Russian, or French to communicate in the United Nations or ISO) yet carried with it the weight of the nation. The official Danish Standards organization (and hence ISO voice) did not make the complaint - it was made and sent to that organization. Having dealt with Danish SDOs before, I know they take this stuff seriously so I have sincere feelings that the heart of the Danish SDO might be on side on this case (Disclaimer: my opinion, not fact). Note that officially, ISO does not recognize the author of the letter, OSL - an open source group. As translated and reported on Groklaw,

"(The letter in question) states that ISO rules were broken, there was no consensus in Denmark, and that the Fast Track process "has been formally annulled for 2 months now - since the 29th of March, where the specification should have been sent to the national standardization organizations. The basis for a fast track procedure is no longer present, and I therefore expect ISO to pick up the case again." Read on for the full letter, and for clarity, it's a letter of protest, not an appeal from the standards body. However, it's a letter from a member of the technical committee who participated in the BRM and who raises serious concerns."

I cannot find an official response from ISO to this letter anywhere. So what about Norway? Norway's protest seems to be more official at least according to Scuttlemonkey's post on slashdot:

"I am writing to you in my capacity as Chairman (of 13 years standing) of the Norwegian mirror committee to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34. I wish to inform you of serious irregularities in connection with the Norwegian vote on ISO/IEC DIS 29500 (Office Open XML) and to lodge a formal protest. You will have been notified that Norway voted to approve OOXML in this ballot. This decision does not reflect the view of the vast majority of the Norwegian committee, 80% of which was against changing Norway's vote from No with comments to Yes."

The alleged letter is documented at If an acting chairman's letter, written in English, is not official I have no idea why.

So where lies the truth and what will happen? I researched ISO's process of dealing with protests. It is at Ironically, this page does not seem to conform to web standards and I need some plugin to view the content. In short, Roger Frost, ISO's Manager of Communication, has stated publicly in the release the following:

"In accordance with the ISO/IEC rules governing the work of their joint technical committee ISO/IEC JTC 1, Information technology, the appeals are currently being considered by the ISO Secretary-General and the IEC General Secretary who, within a period of 30 days (to the end of June), and following whatever consultations they judge appropriate, are required to submit the appeals, with their comments, to the ISO Technical Management Board and the IEC Standardization Management Board."

I guess we all have to wait and see. Prediction? This stall will have no effect on the overall status of ISO approval of OOXML. Microsoft has claimed it will add support for the Open Document Format (ODF) and that should quell some of the opposition. There has been a lot of resources and energy wasted on this debate. Regardless of the outcome, here are my predictions:

1. The fact ISO approves or does not approve OOXML will have little effect on it being put into future versions of Microsoft Office.

2. No one who is anti-Microsoft will not suddenly be pro-Microsoft just because of approval from ISO.

3. Real standards are, in part, ipso facto adoption and use. ISO's stamp does provide some additional credibility but due to the press about this, I doubt will have any serious impact on people's opinions who have been paying attention. Those who have not paid attention may get suckered by the "yes - it is a standard" spiel however the reality is that Microsoft Office is a standard today, with or without ISO stamps.

4. The real issue is that several governments have made statements governing software purchase which limits purchases to standards. If MS office supports ODF, will it be legal to be purchased by most governments? Probably yes. Will they use the ODF format or OOXML for document persistence? You take a guess.

Comments? I'd love to hear other arguments.


  1. Agreed on #4. That's why Microsoft pushed an unimplementable format through, as a "fast-track standard" no less, and as a result of those machinations other members are complaining now.

    If "open standards" campaigners hadn't gone political in the first place, then odds are strong Microsoft wouldn't have corrupted the standards process as its defensive move.

    j "me as individual" d (who happens to work at adobe)

  2. your predictions are smack on.

  3. Speaking for myself (ie not in any way representing my employer), I think that this area has become a political minefield.

    It is clear that "open standards" are being used as a lever against Microsoft in one of their major markets. The move to standardize OOXML is clearly part of the response to that.

    Nothing wrong in that, if they can get agreement and acceptance using the open processes of established standards bodies.

    The standards bodies must equally be cautious and ensure fairness and due procedure if they are not to devalue their own standing in the wider community, particularly when dealing with clearly contentious areas of capability.

    You rightly say that the real importance of any standard is the extent to which it is adopted. This remains to be seen - it would clearly be good for consumers to be able to use a format which is widely supported by a range of competitive products. OOXML - or any other standard format - can ultimately only be judged on this basis.

  4. Mike:

    Very nicely worded!


  5. I challenge all. Why does this even matter? WTF does ISO have to do with anything. They are an old relic of an old world.

    The new world is savvy developers doing what they want. Cutting edge stuff cannot be standards compliant since standards are only going to reflect it after the fact. SDO's (as you call them) are there to quantify what we have already written.

    OOXML is new. It is a fact that Redmond will endorse OOXML. WTF does it matter what ISO thinks. It won't have any effect on software engineering unless a few people at ISO learn how to code.

    I love your blog because it exposes the truth.

    /dr. FH


Do not spam this blog! Google and Yahoo DO NOT follow comment links for SEO. If you post an unrelated link advertising a company or service, you will be reported immediately for spam and your link deleted within 30 minutes. If you want to sponsor a post, please let us know by reaching out to duane dot nickull at gmail dot com.