ISO officials, others dispute Open XML meeting was flawed

Voting on changes to proposed standard followed ISO rules, 'convener' says

The ISO official who was in charge of a meeting held last week to discuss possible changes to the Office Open XML standards proposal is hitting back at claims by critics that established rules were disregarded in a bid to hasten the adoption of the Microsoft file format as an open standard.

Alex Brown, who in ISO parlance was the convener of last week's ballot resolution meeting (BRM) at the standards organization's Geneva headquarters, defends two controversial decisions that he oversaw: allowing the national standards bodies represented at the meeting to approve about 900 of the 1,100 changes made to the Open XML proposal on a single vote after little or no discussion, and letting lower-status "observer" countries ? or O-members ? take part in that vote.

"Yes, it was a good idea to take votes (congratulations to the BRM on wisely choosing this route)," Brown wrote in a message that he posted Monday on the blog of attorney and Open XML critic Andy Updegrove. "Yes, it was within my, and the meeting's, powers to allow it. Yes, what happened was fully in accord with the JTC 1 Directives (O-member voting and all)." JTC 1 is the technical committee in charge of IT standards within ISO.

Brown, who is a technical director at a company in Cambridge, England, added that the voting procedures were "discussed in minute detail" before the meeting, in consultation with ISO's Information Technology Task Force . And he contended that parts of a written analysis of the meeting by Updegrove were "factually misleading."

Updegrove, who was in Geneva last week and said he talked to many of the ISO delegates while the meeting was in progress and afterwards, has been outspoken in his criticism of what took place during the proceedings. "People here are disgusted," he told Computerworld by phone from Geneva last Friday. "The absurdity of trying to do this by a 'fast track' process became quite apparent this week."

He wasn't alone in his criticism of the meeting, which was a prelude to a second round of balloting within ISO on whether to approve the Open XML standards bid. The proposal, which was submitted by standards body Ecma International under ISO's fast-track approach, received a majority of the votes cast in the first round last September but not enough to win approval. The new balloting is scheduled to end March 29.

Frank Farance, an IT consultant who headed the US delegation to the ballot resolution meeting, said afterward that there likely will be "hundreds of defects" in the Open XML specification if it is accepted as a standard in its current form. "Eighty percent of the changes were not discussed," Farance said. "I've never seen anything like this, and I've been doing this for 25 years."

On Wednesday, ISO's press office released a statement about the meeting, detailing and defending the process that was followed in Geneva.

"At the beginning of the meeting, each national body was invited to raise the issues they considered to be their priority so that these could be discussed during the BRM," ISO said in the statement. "When it was apparent that it would not be possible for all comments to be reviewed individually, the meeting discussed and agreed on a voting procedure to decide on the remaining proposed modifications."

ISO added that the meeting "followed the orderly and inclusive process" set out by the organization, and that JTC 1 "is one of the most experienced and productive" of its technical committees.

Patrick Durusau, a consultant who is the editor of the specification for the Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications, also weighed in on Wednesday, posting an open letter (download PDF) in which he said critics of the Open XML ballot resolution meeting had overstated their claims that the process was flawed.

Durusau didn't attend the meeting himself, but he said that he found a common thread in all the reports coming out of Geneva. "Everyone at the table was heard," he wrote. "That may not seem like a lot to an Oracle or IBM, but name the last time Microsoft was listening to everyone in a public and international forum? At a table where a standard for a future product was being debated by non-Microsoft groups?"

Durusau also chairs an esoteric but influential technical standards committee that advises the panel that votes for the US within ISO. Last summer, his committee voted not to endorse the Open XML standards proposal.

But despite his ties to ODF, a rival file format to Open XML that already has been ratified as an ISO standard, Durusau has since changed his mind and now supports the adoption of Microsoft's format as a standard. Although he wrote in his open letter this week that parts of the Open XML specification make him "wince," he noted that rejecting it would carry a big cost: "ordinary users, governments, smaller interests, [would] all lose a seat at the table where the next version of the Office standard is being written."

Standards groups from Denmark and Norway also posted statement in support of the process at last week's ballot resolution meeting. The Danish government is testing both ODF and Open XML, while Norway's is evaluating ODF only at this point.

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Eric Lai

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