ISO committee takes full control of OOXML 
2008-04-09, 22:16

Harmony? Patrick Durusau, Jean Paoli and Brian Jones

Since my last blog entry a lot has happened. The big story of course is that DIS 29500 gathered enough votes to pass as an International Standard. Although the margin of votes in its favour was (surprisingly to me) reasonably comfortable, the overall mood of acceptance seems less of a "yip yip yahoo!" and perhaps more of a "well, alright". Everybody is now watching very carefully ...


Now however, the whole process moves forward into a much more significant stage. At the just-finished SC 34 meeting in Oslo a number of resolutions were passed relating to 29500. The most significant of these is resolution 4, "Creation of Ad Hoc Group 1 on ISO/IEC 29500 Maintenance", and it's worth looking at it in some detail. I will go through the complete resolution below with some explanation of my own ...


SC 34 is the JTC 1 designated maintenance body for ISO/IEC 29500 (Office Open XML file formats).

simply states the fact that JTC 1 have handed full responsibility for the standard over to SC 34. We then have some informative text setting out SC 34's current orientation:

The passage of ISO/IEC 29500 has instituted a new era of standards activity in SC 34 related to document formats. ISO/IEC 29500 does not represent an isolated phenomenon, since SC 34 is also responsible for ISO/IEC 26300 and for interoperability between these and other projects.

SC 34 envisages the creation of three distinct working groups that meet the needs of:
  1. ISO/IEC 29500
  2. ISO/IEC 26300
  3. Work on interoperability/harmonization between document format standards
and wishes to incorporate existing expertise on these standards.

For these reasons, SC 34 hereby establishes an ad hoc group pursuant to the JTC 1 Directives, clause 2.6.2, for investigating how the first of these groups may be set up most effectively.

So, SC 34 has a plan: it envisages taking control of OOXML, then setting up a maintance procedure for ODF, and then working on cross-standard initiatives. As the first part of effecting this plan it is setting up a temporary group (in ISO parlance an "ad hoc group") to investigate how OOXML can be maintained. The rest of the resolution sets out the terms of reference for this new investigative group.

Terms of Reference

The terms of reference for the group are as follows:

The first of these terms of reference set out the task that the group is to perform:

The task to be completed by the group is to advise its convenor on creation of a document proposing structures and mechanisms for onward work on ISO/IEC IS29500. Onward work is defined as:
  • Maintenance as provided for by the JTC 1 Directives (in particular Section 15 - Maintenance of International Standards)
  • Handling new work items directly and exclusively related to ISO/IEC IS29500 (e.g. creation of new Parts of this Standard or evolution of this standard)

The proposal shall be drafted by the convenor as one or more resolutions (with supporting explanatory material) that may be discussed, revised and adopted by SC 34.

The ad hoc group should consider the following factors in making its recommendations to the convenor:

    a) A new working group should be created in SC 34 for the purpose of maintenance of ISO/IEC 29500 pursuant to Section 15 of the JTC 1 Directives for standards maintenance.
    b) Editors and editing teams should be nominated as well as mechanisms for the nomination of editors and editing teams for ISO/IEC 29500.
    c) Transparency of process, consistent with JTC 1 Directives, is a goal of the recommended process.
    d) Consideration should be given to how Ecma and ISO/IEC versions of ISO/IEC 29500 may be best kept synchronized.
    e) The proposal should recommend ways in which onward work on ISO/IEC 29500 may be carried out in as timely a way as possible, without recourse to the accelerated mechanisms of PAS or Fast Track procedures.

There are several things of note here. First is that the group activities are limited to OOXML only, and that the group will be purely advisory. It will advise its convenor who will weigh up the advice and report back to SC 34 who will in turn make a decision that heeds (or ignores) that advice.

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is the list (items "a" to "e") in which SC 34 gives a "steer" to the group on how it should be thinking about OOXML maintenance. What we learn from this is that the group should try to come up with a process that ensures maintenance activities are fully staffed, as open as possible, that keep Ecma and ISO versions of the standard in sync, and which sticks to the full rigour of normal committee working without any Fast Track or PAS oddities.

The later clauses flesh out some important further details.

2. The ad hoc group shall make its proposal to SC 34 for consideration at its plenary scheduled for 2008-10-01, at Jeju Island, Korea. A draft proposal shall be made available to SC 34 one month before the plenary.

sets the duration of the work. It will take place over the next 6 months or so and report in time for SC 34 to consider its findings at the next plenary.

3. The ad hoc group shall be open to participation from all SC 34 members, subgroup members, and liaison bodies. Participants shall be nominated by these bodies to the SC 34 secretariat in the usual way.

simply states that the usual people will be able to participate in the activity (SC 34 committee members, etc.)

4. The ad hoc group shall be convened by Dr Alex Brown, as nominated by the UK National Body (BSi).

says it is I who will be convening it - an honour indeed!

5. Administration and support for the ad hoc groupís activities shall be provided by the SC 34 Secretariat.

points out that our super-efficient SC 34 secretariat (of the Japanese NB) will be providing much needed assistance.

6. The ad hoc group shall arrange face-to-face, telephone and electronic meetings as required in accord with the provisions of the JTC 1 Directives. The first face-to-face meeting shall take place in early July in London, UK.

sets out some meeting details. The "main event" will be a two day meeting in London in summer.

and ... that's it. The resolution passed with unanimous support.

Bringing Ecma in

The above resolution says nothing of Ecma, since maintenance is now an SC 34 activity. Practically speaking, however, the Ecma TC 45 team are the guys who know more that anybody what is really going on with OOXML, so SC 34 issued a liaison statement (a fancy term for a "message") inviting these experts to participate:

SC34 recognizes that Ecma TC45 members have in-depth knowledge, technical expertise on ISO/IEC 29500 and will seek to preserve and allow for inclusion of this existing body of technical expertise in SC34. SC34 therefore invite Ecma TC45 members to attend and fully participate in ISO/IEC JTC 1 SC 34 Ad Hoc Group 1 as well as in any future working group that will be dedicated to the maintenance of ISO/IEC 29500. SC34 intends to organize an efficient and timely process for maintaining and handling new work items to insure the evolution of the standard in following the JTC 1 Directives.

This encourages inclusion of the TC 45 people -- but they will of course have no power of vote at any level in the process.

Short-term maintenance

While all this investigative work is going on to determine the long-term maintenance procedure for OOXML, there is a more pressing task: recording the defects that are currently known and being found in the OOXML spec. With this in mind, a second ad hoc group is being established for collections of comments.

ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34 establishes Ad Hoc Group 2 in accordance with subclause 2.6.2 of the JTC 1 Directives, with the following terms of reference:

  • Definition of the task:
    • To define and put into operation a mechanism to compile a list of comments on ISO/IEC 29500 received from NBs, liaisons, and the general public.
    • To publish the on-going list as an open document on the SC 34 website.
  • Time frame: The collection mechanism is to become operational within 90 days from the end of the April 2008 ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34 plenary. Once this is operational, collection will continue until a long-term maintenance process is operational.
  • Membership: Open to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34 P and O members, liaison organizations, and subgroup representatives.
  • Convener: Makoto Murata (JP).
  • Meeting arrangements: Work will be handled primarily by email, with optional telephone conference calls at dates and times to be announced.

The main thinking here is that knowledge about defects must not get lost. This group, under the expert leadership of Murata Makoto, will make sure that does not happen, and that defects are carefully collected so that they might be fed into the onward maintenance process.

A little local difficulty

While all this work was going on, the OOXML backstory continued. In Norway there is a fuss that the NB (Standard Norway) did not adopt the recommendation of a technical committee. The situation was well explained by the excellent Lars Marius Garshol in his blog entry preceding the Norwegian vote. I can understand the crossness - I certainly would be miffed if our standards body (BSI) did not heed the advice of its technical committee, though in the UK case of course the technical committee recommended that BSI approves DIS 29500 ... What I find less understandable is how what is essentially a local spat (with SN rather obviously acting within its powers) has been blown up into something bigger ...

Steve Pepper

The demonstration passed off reasonably enough ... 100 or so geeks decamped from the adjacent open source conference to stand in the rain and wave placards while Steve Pepper had fun making a speech and brandishing a hairdrier (perhaps risking quips about 'hot air' in the process). There was some half-hearted chanting ("what's that smell? OOXML!"). Meanwhile some on-looking SC 34 people felt insulted. One neutral XML expert, who I know for a fact took a very close technical look at DIS 29500 asked "what are they saying? that we are incompetent? that we do not have the right to decide for ourselves?". Well ... were they?

Disharmony? the anti-OOXML protest

Standards of behaviour

Perhaps the most extraordinary document issued by SC 34 during this Oslo meeting was an "open letter", which received many signatures.

We the undersigned participants at this SC 34 meeting wish to make it clear that we deplore the personal attacks that have been made during the DIS 29500 standardisation project in recent months. We believe standards debate should always be carried out with respect for all parties, even when they strongly disagree.

We call on all organisations and individuals involved in SC 34 standardisation to support this view, and to refrain from initiating or engaging in any such personal attacks.

This content speaks for iself.
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