Rules altered in OOXML standardization process

Rules changed on the fly to meet five-day deadline to discuss concerns with specification; final vote due in 30 days

ISO delegates working to standardize Open Office XML created new rules on the fly to cover the fact they failed to discuss nearly 80 per cent of the 1,100 questions submitted about the document specification format because they ran out of time during their five-day meeting in Geneva.

Delegates from 32 national delegations that attended the ISO's five-day Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) decided to abandon the required individual review of 900 of 1,100 comments -- or dispositions -- that were filed concerning OOXML. Those comments were filed as part of the ISO's September 2 preliminary vote for approval of OOXML, which went against the Microsoft-developed and ECMA approved document format. The delegates went on to approve the proposed changes.

The move was a significant deviation from ISO/BRM rules which call for each proposed disposition to be reviewed and a consensus to be reached on a resolution. The purpose of the BRM is for national bodies to resolve their difference with the specification and build consensus. The BRM process allows national standards bodies to discuss the issues so they can review and potentially reconsider their votes made on September 2.

The BRM, however, is not a final vote on standardization of OOXML - called DIS 29500 at ISO. Delegates have until March 30 to cast their deciding vote.

"I have been doing standards work for 25 years and I have never been through a BRM like this," said Frank Farance, head of the US delegation. "We made good progress on 20 per cent, but virtually everything we were able to approve this week needed review, so it is highly likely that the other 80 per cent would have required some degree of editing."

Farance said: "a lot of rules were made up on the fly," after the delegates realized it was mid-week and their task was only 20 per cent completed. "We were able to get some things corrected, but it was sort of like putting your finger in a dike and then seeing another hole and then another hole."

Farance says in other BRMs he has been involved in 100 per cent if the comments have been reviewed and resolved. The ISO Fast Track that OOXML was on called for a five-day BRM meeting on the 6,000 page specification.

Microsoft officials disputed the assumption is that the comments have not been looked at before or reviewed by national bodies or ECMA, which proposed answers to the comments in December and January.

Before the BRM, Microsoft and ECMA have the opportunity to respond to specific questions contained in the dispositions submitted by the ISO's voting members.

But even though ECMA has been answering concerns, no changes to the specification can be made until approved at the BRM, according to ISO rules.

"The discussions that happened this week were on the issues the national bodies cared most about, the outstanding issues, and that discussion was -- I wasn't in the room -- but I understand that it was robust and that a lot of changes were developed," said Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft.

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"It is more accurate to say this dialogue has been taking place, it is incorrect to say the discussion during the BRM is the only time these issues have been considered. They have been considering them for weeks, for months," said Robertson.

"I think that the national bodies should feel very good about the process that took place here. The process meaning the entire ballot resolution process."

OOXML critic and Linux Foundation member Andy Updegrove, who was in Geneva, said by his unofficial polling of national body members that only six of the 32 delegations in attendance voted to "approve" the resolution of the dispositions while four delegations voted to disapprove. The others either refused to cast any vote or abstained.

The ISO has not officially made any announcement addressing its Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) voting.

In Geneva, the 32 national bodies at the BRM, which represented less than half the 87 that voted September 2 on OOXML, decided early that they could not discuss all of the dispositions during the weeklong BRM and elected to lump nearly 900 together into one vote. The other 200, many of which involved editing corrections for the OOXML specification, were approved en masse.

On Wednesday, the delegates approved a proposal to vote on all the proposed resolutions in a single vote. Thursday, a ballot containing all 900 proposed dispositions was issued, according to Updegrove.

The forms were due on Friday. Members could vote "approved," "disapproved," or "abstain" for each proposal, or lump any number or all the dispositions together under one vote and then vote individually on any remaining dispositions.

ECMA already has standardized OOXML and was the organization that recommended the document format for ISO fast-track standardization.

The industry has been hotly debating OOXML and the OpenDocument Format (ODF).

The ISO has already approved ODF as a standard, giving it credibility among organizations that prefer standards-based technology and Microsoft is gunning to land the same designation for its specification.

"Many, many, people around the world have tried very hard to make the OOXML adoption process work," Updegrove said. "It is very unfortunate that they were put to this predictably unsuccessful result through the self-interest of a single vendor taking advantage of a permissive process that was never intended to be abused in this fashion. Hopefully, the National Bodies will not compound this error by approving a clearly unfinished specification during the voting period ahead."