Former ECMA Sec. Gen challenges ISO/BRM critics to create a better process

Jan van den Beld, the man responsible for advising Microsoft to pursue a Fast Track route to OOXML standardisation, challenges critics of the ISO, ECMA process

The former Secretary General of ECMA International admits that there is some room for improvement in the ISO standardisation process that Microsoft's Office Open XML format has followed, but challenges critics of the process to come up with a better method.

Jan van den Beld was secretary general of ECMA from 1991 to 2007, and has been involved in over 200 Fast Track proposals. He was responsible for advising Microsoft to pursue through ECMA the fast-track process to ISO standardisation for its Office Open XML format.

"If people say this whole ISO process is lousy, out of date and doesn't work anymore or is broken, I challenge anybody to make a new worldwide process," van den Beld told PC World while in Australia working for the Computing Technology Industry Association.

PC World discussed with van den Beld some of the major criticisms Microsoft's OOXML format has faced on the road to ISO standardisation, including the criticism surrounding the week long Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva.

History of Fast Track process and why OOXML was Fast Tracked

Van den Beld said the fast-track process was created in 1987 by ECMA and a Japanese professor to hasten the standardisation process, which could take so long that by the time the standard was passed the technology it had standardised had evolved.

"The Japanese wanted to have an ISO standard for what was in fact the first optical disc. But even today JTC-1 takes on average 32 months to write a standard and this was far too long for an optical disc because by then you are already at the second generation," he said.

"There was a discussion between my predecessor and the head of activities from Japan into JTC-1 and they said 'we must find another way to do things'."

The idea they came up with was to relieve ISO of the time consuming technical work on the specification of the standard by doing it elsewhere - in ECMA - and then bringing that "lock, stock and barrel" to ISO.

"ISO then must of course have their say as well at the time, but then we can make it in less than 2 years, and that has been the basis of the fast-track proposal from ECMA," Van den Beld explained.

Since then ECMA has made around 250 fast-track processes, of which only three were not passed.

One of the reasons van den Beld cited for advising Microsoft to put OOXML on the fast-track route was to get the standard 80-90% percent out to the international community as quickly as possible, so that it could begin its evolution towards a complete standard. He calls this a "catch-up process".

"You have to make a trade-off I think between quality and speed because such type of standards like this, also ODF as it is in the same context, are evolutionary standards. They have to go through many more years of development, so the sooner you can bring them to the international community the better. That is my view at least and has been my view from the beginning," he said.

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