Where is there an end of it? | All posts tagged 'tandards'

Australia and OOXML

Somewhere too early


There have been some poor decisions of late in Australia. Not playing Hauritz and persisting too long with the out-of-form Clarke and Ponting probably cost Australia the Ashes and has led to terrible self-flagelation. While it’s generally not done to take pleasure in the discomfort of others, I do think an exception can be made in the case of the Australian cricket team.

From various recent blogs and tweets I’ve noticed a fuss surrounding the decision by the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) to recommend the use of OOXML as a document format, and from the tenor of the comments it would seem this is being treated as similar calamity for Australia. However, there appears to be some misunderstanding and misinformation flying around which is worth a comment …

Leaving aside the merits of the decision itself, one particular theme in the commentary is that AGIMO have somehow picked a “non-ISO” version of OOXML. I can’t find any evidence of this. By specifying Ecma 376 without an edition number the convention is that the latest version of that standard is intended; and though I do think there is a danger of over-reading this particular citation, the current version of Ecma 376 is the second edition, which is the version of OOXML that was approved by ISO and IEC members in April 2008. The Ecma and ISO/IEC versions are in lock-step, with the Ecma text only ever mirroring the ISO/IEC text. And although (as now) there are inevitably some bureaucratic and administrative delays in the Ecma version rolling in all changes made in JTC 1 prior to publication, to cite one is, effectively, equivalent to citing the other.

[UPDATE: John Sheridan from AGIMO comments below that Ecma 376 1st Edition was intended, and I respond]

SC 34 Meetings, Seattle - Day 1

At the invitation of ANSI, SC 34 is in sunny Bellevue for five jam-packed days of Standards meetings (Sunday-Thursday). This is a full and busy event, with around 60 delegates registered from 14 countries (Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Korea, Norway, South Africa, UK, and the USA) and 4 liaison organisations (Ecma, OASIS, W3C and the XML Guild).

Maybe by the end of it a number of momentous questions will have been answered, including:

  • Whether the world needs a standardised way to associate XML documents with schemas
  • Whether OOXML Transitional should be evolved
  • How ISO/IEC 26300 shall be maintained within SC 34
  • How standard schemas should be licensed to users
  • How MIME types should best be used for identifying document formats

Stay tuned ...

No one supports ISO ODF today?

IBM employee and ODF TC co-chair Rob Weir’s latest blog entry seeks to rebut what he terms a “disinformation campaign being waged against ODF”. The writing is curiously disjointed, and while at first I thought Rob’s famously fluent pen had been constipated by his distaste at having to descend further into the ad hominem gutter, on closer inspection I think it is perhaps a tell of Rob’s discomfort about his own past statements.

In particular, Rob takes issue with a statement that he condemns as “Microsoft FUD […] laundered via intermediaries”:

There is no software that currently implements ODF as approved by the ISO

Now Rob Weir is a great blogger, a much-praised committee chair, and somebody who can, on occasion, fearlessly produce the blunt truth like a rabbit from a hat. For this reason, I know his blog entry, “Toy Soldiers” of July 2008 has enjoyed quite some exposure in standards meetings around the world, most particularly for its assertions about ODF. He wrote:

  1. No one supports ODF 1.0 today. All of the major vendors have moved on to ODF 1.1, and will be moving on to ODF 1.2 soon.
  2. No one supports OOXML 1.0 today, not even Microsoft.
  3. No one supports interoperability via translation, not Sun in their Plugin, not Novell in their OOXML support, and not Microsoft in their announced ODF support in Office 2007 SP2.

While the anti-MS line here represents the kind of robust corporate knockabout stuff we might expect, it is Rob’s statement that “no one supports ODF 1.0 today. All of the major vendors have moved on […]” which has particularly resonated for users. A pronouncement on adoption from a committee chair about his own committee’s standard is significant. And naturally, it has deeply concerned some of the National Bodies who have adopted ODF 1.0 (which is ISO/IEC 26300) as a National standard, and who now find they have adopted something which, apparently, “no one supports”.

So, far from being “Microsoft FUD”, the idea that “No one supports ODF 1.0” is in fact Rob Weir’s own statement. And it was taken up and repeated by Andy Updegrove, Groklaw and Boycott Novell, those well-known vehicles of Microsoft’s corporate will.

Today however, this appears to have become an inconvenient truth. The rabbit that was pulled out of the hat in the interest of last summer’s spin, now needs to be put into the boiler. Consequently we find Rob’s blog entry of July 2008 has been silently amended so that it now states:

  1. Few applications today support exclusively ODF 1.0 and only ODF 1.0. Most of the major vendors also support ODF 1.1, one (OpenOffice 3.x), now supports draft ODF 1.2 as well.
  2. No one supports OOXML 1.0 today, not even Microsoft.
  3. No one supports interoperability via translation, not Sun in their Plugin, not Novell in their OOXML support, and not Microsoft in their announced ODF support in Office 2007 SP2.

The pertinent change is to item 1 on this list, which now has a weasel-worded (and tellingly tautological) assertion that might make the unsuspecting reader think that ODF 1.0 was somehow supported by the major vendors. Well, is it? Who is right, the Rob Weir of 2008 or the Rob Weir of 2009? Maybe I’ve missed something, but personally I’m unaware of an upsurge in ODF 1.0 support during the last 11 months. My money is on the former Rob being right here.

Okay, I use 1.1.5 (despite its Secunia level 4 advisory) out of a kind of loyalty to ISO/IEC 26300 (ODF 1.0), but I’m often teased about being the only person on the planet who must be doing this, and onlookers wonder what the .swx (etc) files I produce really are.

Blog Etiquette

As a general rule, when making substantive retrospective changes to blog entries, especially controversial blog entries, it is honest dealing to draw attention to this by striking-through removed text and prominently labelling the new text as “updated”. Failing to do this can lead to the suspicion that an attempt to re-write history is underway …

European Standards and Innovation Policy

I am writing this sitting on the Eurostar from Brussels to London, having just attended an event organised by the Centre for European Policy Studies to discuss “EU Innovation Policy and the Role of Standards”. It was an exciting chance to get to express a view to some of the movers and shaker in and around the European Commission, as well as to take some photos of Brussels and get some last-minute Christmas shopping done (chocolates!).

Brussels by Night #1
Brussels by Night — Église Sainte-Marie.

As the meeting was quite brief, I had decided in advance that any message I wanted to get across would need to attempt to be both honed and compact. I also thought it was likely that the issue of OOXML might be raised – so I was fully ready on that score too, even though I took care to avoid the “single issue politics” approach which seems to have characterised some of the debate on this topic. As it was, the topic was hardly raised and when it was I was glad to be able to put straight some misconceptions floating around about the difference between the PAS and Fast Track procedures.

Over the course of the meeting we heard from Renate Weissenhorn (DG Industry, Head of Standardization Unit) on the importance of standardisation for innovation in the EU, in a presentation which nicely set the scene for what followed. Knut Blind (Berlin University) had carried-out a deep study of some of the subtle interrelations (among other things) between standards and legislation. His presentation, like that of Anne Lehouck (DG Industry, ICT for Competitiveness and Innovation) made me appreciate that if I had thought international standardisation is a complex system, it is as nothing compared to the complexity of trying to set policy in a world with so many disparate standardisation bodies and concerns. Ms Lehouck outlined some of the things which would, and would not, appear in a forthcoming white paper on EU standardisation policy. One thing that particularly interested me was that the EU had decided (of course) on the primacy of IETF specifications in their area, even though IETF is not a formally EU-recognised body. I did say it was complex …

For my own presentation, the need for brevity meant there were quite a few interesting topics which did not survive the triage when preparing my slides – notably the widely-held UK view (though I was representing myself, not the UK) that the European-level standards institutions are, by and large, a waste of space, and that European nations should be using International Standards for all but a very few niche cases where a “European dimension” exists and a regional layer (i.e. a European layer) can bring benefits.

I also confined myself carefully to my own area of knowledge; ISO/IEC (JTC 1) ICT standardisation.

Following a few introductory slides on the functioning of JTC 1, and given the task of predicting the immediate future and describing the challenges ahead, I focussed on four main headings, as set out in the sections that follow.

Resisting vendor encroachment

The points here are:

• Vendors dislike international standardisation (when it does not function in their favour)

Anybody who has read my earlier piece will find the background argument to this familiar: international standardisation is an activity for nations and vendors have no standing. From time to time this causes upset (and in part explains some of the vendor-led assault on the integrity of the European standards institutions following the passage of OOXML).

• Expect continual pressure for a means of “direct participation” by vendors

A corollary of the above is a continued attempt for vendors to participate (i.e. have voting rights) in the international process. My own view on this is quite stark: vendors must never be allowed such rights.

• Governments must strongly resist this and maintain the de jure institutions such as ISO for their own use as bulwarks against corporate tyranny

My point here is that the international standards organisations are made “by governments, for governments”. The use of the words “corporate tyranny” are quite strong – but for myself I am convinced that the power afforded to corporations by the data collection and inspection efforts they may now mount today mean that, more than ever, governments are necessary to keep corporations, rapacious beasts that they are, in check.

Surprisingly (to me) it was this view which gathered most negative reaction, with a view expressed around the table that standards should be made “by industry for industry” and that governments should generally not interfere (much was also made of the distinction between a nation’s view and the view of that nation’s government – which I should treat with more rigour). Of course this is partly right too. I think I need to find a more nuanced way of describing how “industry” may be involved, but without being allowed the final say, at least in international standardisation. I think though, I have a wider view of the social dimension government can bring, and a sharper suspicion of the evils of corporatism, than seems to be currently common in EU circles. I’d never thought of myself as left-wing before. Hmmm.

Effects of economic slowdown

• It is difficult for vendors to commit staff to standardisation activities when under economic pressure

As predictions go, this one doesn’t require much insight. Already the ICT industry is seeing lay-offs in large numbers as the global recession bites. There is always a danger when the pressure is on that standardisation is seen as a luxury, non-gainful activity – and the kinds of gurus and thought-leaders in corporations who do this stuff can find their jobs under threat.

• Health and survival of vendor-led consortia threatened

On a larger level, corporations themselves (those that survive) might come to see participation in standards activities as something which might be given a rest. For consortia which depend on the corporate dollar this can present a challenge. Some commentators, for example, see the W3C’s (perfectly reasonable) recent announcement of validator donation program (“we really can use that money”) as just such evidence of the negative impact of recession on standardisation.

• Standardisation needs to be recognised as of much as a market-enabler as pure innovation; governments may assist

This is the nub: standardisation is (when it is done well) a first-class form of market enablement. Yet the myopic corporations are not generally in a position to see this, and even if they can they have no interest (they tend to be interested only in markets in which they are confident they can win, rather than in market creation in the general sense). And so this is a perfect example of where governments, with their (one hopes) wider and longer-term view, can intervene by continuing to support standards activities through supporting their National Standards Bodies.

Reform / modernisation

• The publishing business model of many European standards bodies (“selling pages”) is out of tune with the realities of modern ICT standardisation

The broken business model of National Standards Bodies is a serious problem. With ICT standards often (by demand) being given away free-of-charge the traditional means by which NBs can recoup the cost of making standards has gone away. Why, then, should they bother? I have no quick answer to this question, but I expect an answer would involve the need to have both governments and vendors contributing more to the financial cost of creating international ICT standards.

• Some European bodies assist experts in standardisation in their duties, but this is far from universal

Related to this is the fact the individual experts who are not employed by corporations can find it difficult to contribute to international standardisation – especially when international travel is required. Some enlightened standards bodies (the UK for example) do help defray these expenses but it would be worthwhile to see this kind of support more widely and consistently deployed throughout the European nations. The danger is that if independents cannot be funded, the void will be entirely filled by well-funded corporate employees, and the ensuing lack of balance would be regrettable.

• The Directives governing JTC 1 standardisation are archaic and confusing and in need of improvement

Another kind of reform that is needed is that of the JTC 1 Directives themselves. This dovetails with the above two points as securing this kind of reform requires dedicated experts – it will not just happen by itself.

IPR reform

• The patent spectres haunting innovation in ICT are also at work in the standards arena

The discussion around IPR, and particularly patents, in the EU is a vibrant one. My own view is that software patents are A Bad Thing but if we are to have them then standardisation could have a particular role to play in the standardisation landscape.

• Ideally, an International Standard should provide a guarantee of freedom from IPR encumbrance

This idea (first raised on this blog by André Rebentisch) is that a certain class of International Standards could provide a “safe haven” for implementers, who should feel secured against legal action for any implementations that arise directly from the use of that standard.

• Governments (the EU) could usefully legislate in this area

The way this could be practically achieved is for the EU to legislate that for certain de jure standards (JTC 1 ones, in my examples) which are labelled as unencumbered, there was an absolute defence against patent actions centred around IPR embodied therein. IANAL, but this kind of thing could usefully protect innovation and further enhance and clarify the role of de jure standards organisations, and the special relationship they have with governments/nations.

Again, here I sensed I was a little out-of-tune with the consensus round the table, which seemed to hold that patents were a given, and a useful aspect of the standards landscape (of course, it difficult to tell here how much that view applied to the area of ICT on which I was focussed, and which brings its own particular difficulties). On the other hand, there was general agreement that this area was one in which a lot of further work is required.

Brussels by Night #1
Brussels by Night — Hotel Frontage.

Standards News …

… Big …

It doesn’t get much bigger than this: 30 years after first joining, China has become the sixth permanent member of ISO, joining the original 5: the United States, Germany, Britain, France and Japan. More here.

… and Small …

Zooming from the world’s most populous nation to the level of the individual, Patrick Durusau has written a new piece entitled “My Standards Education” which (characteristically) presents a positive message, encouraging people who care, to get involved in standards. Anyone who has the wherewithal and is not currently contributing could does a lot worse than take up one of his suggestions and join OASIS – perhaps to contribute to the vitally important work of the new ODF Interoperability and Conformance TC. More about that particular effort from Rob Weir here.

Come on people – as Patrick would happily observe, we won’t get better standards just by writing blogs …

[Update: Patrick has just issued another post, on one aspect of different approaches ODF and OOXML take to markup.]