OOXML - what just happened? 
2007-09-06, 20:19
As everyone knows, the DIS 29500 five-month ballot closed on 2 September, and the results are now out.

To look at the headlines, one would think something momentous happened. “Microsoft’s OOXML Rejected By ISO” they (mostly) say. Yet again, the truth is more mundane: there was a vote, the process continues. Anyone who had bothered to acquaint themselves with the basics of the process (perhaps by reading this blog) was not surprised. In truth, there was no great prize on offer here (other than in cheap PR) which Microsoft/Ecma somehow failed to attain. This ballot merely took the temperature of opinion at a mid-point in the process. Even if DIS 29500 had achieved ISO approval it would not have been published without further deliberations, and the headline writers are quite wrong to imply otherwise. Equally, Microsoft's silly press release represents cheap PR from the other direction.

... and what happens next?

As I have blogged previously, the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) is the crucial forum for DIS 29500's standardisation. The meeting is scheduled to take place between 25-29 February at the International Conference Centre, Geneva.

Already some curious pieces of wrong information are beginning to appear about the process of this meeting, which is governed by the published JTC 1 Directives. Sure, these Directives leave some room for interpretation (which will appear in the coming weeks and months), but the framework of the meeting is already clearly set out ...

The aim of the BRM is resolution, not argument

The purpose of the BRM is to try and resolve, in good faith, the comments made by the countries that have voted in the ballot, and to try and get constructive agreement on a revised text if that is possible.

Who attends the BRM?

The 87 countries that voted in the five-month ballot may send delegations to the BRM. Those that voted “disapprove” have (in the words of the Directives) a “duty” to send a delegation, as do P-members.

P-member and O-member status

Since ballot resolution is an extension of an existing ballot in which countries have voted with a certain status, for the purposes of the BRM P-Member and O-member ISO status is counted as at the close of the five-month ballot on 2 September i.e., any subsequent status changes are discounted for voting purposes.

The BRM considers revising the text

The BRM considers the comments made in the ballot that closed on 2 September, and Ecma's proposed responses to them. In this way it can work towards a revised text and (ultimately) vote on whether to adopt this.

There is no further ballot

Following the BRM, those who voted in the ballot have a very short opportunity (hours, not weeks) in order to reconsider their vote of 2 September, and inform ISO of this change. Votes can change FROM any of yes/no/abstain TO any of yes/no/abstain. In this way the fate of DIS 29500 is decided.

The BRM is the end of the decision making process

If the result of the BRM is that DIS 29500 is accepted, Ecma have one month to prepare the revised text, which is then forwarded for publication as a full ISO standard.

Roll on February!
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OOXML is Still on the Fast Track 
2007-08-12, 15:49
Yet again, a development in the standardisation of DIS 29500 (OOXML) has been reported with a lamentable lack of understanding. The headline we are getting is ‘OOXML Won't Get Fast-Track ISO Standardization’, and the story we are being told is that ‘this will mean a huge slowdown to the standardization to the OOXML format’.


What has actually happened is that an INCITS committee has voted on what the US response to the OOXML five-month letter ballot should be. The vote was split and did not achieve a majority in favour of voting ‘approve’ in this ballot.

It's quite likely, given the lack of a big majority, that the US (ANSI) will now abstain in the upcoming ballot – though they may accompany any such abstention with the 500 or so comments that have been gathered on the OOXML text.

The US is one of 150 or so [correction 2007-08-31: actually, 100 or so] countries eligible to vote in this ballot. Its vote will have no special effect — since it seems countries are already voting in a variety of ways it is already likely there will be a ballot resolution process for OOXML, and the US vote will not alter that, however it votes.

What Really Happens Next

Very little that happens now can affect the course of the standardisation: the process is on rails, and Ecma have even lost the right to withdraw the text from the process (it is ISO's now). Theoretically, there are just four routes forward.

1. OOXML receives unanimous support in the letter ballot, and is published as a full standard without changes (unlikely, even impossible, given what we know).

2. OOXML receives such a negative response in the letter ballot that ISO decides it is not worth the process continuing, and terminates it.

3. Following the ballot, there is a ballot resolution process which ultimately approves the standard, most probably with alterations in line with comments received in the ballot.

4. Following the ballot, there is a ballot resolution process which fails to agree a text, and the project is abandoned.
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OOXML Purdah 
2007-08-11, 11:49
Countries around the world are deciding on their vote on OOXML in the five-month letter ballot, which closes on 2 September.

BSI House, Gunnersbury, London

The UK, too, is deciding — or more precisely the British Standards Institute (BSI) is deciding on behalf of the UK. However, unlike some countries the decision-making process here takes place behind closed doors in accord with the rules of BS 0, the standard which governs standards-making in the UK. This states:

Committee members shall not disclose committee proceedings/documents to any body, [...], without the committee’s express authorization.

Committee membership is also confidential (though BSI will make known which organisations are represented on committees)

The names of individual representatives shall not be made public by BSI so that individuals serving on committees are not exposed to lobbying or media attention.

I can see this causing raised eyebrows in some quarters. IBM's Bob Sutor, for example has called for everybody to learn from the current process that future standards should be ‘created in better, more open, more transparent ways’. Yet looking around the world I see no correspondence between the openness of decision-making, and quality of decision making. Openness, like choice, is one of the most over-sold concepts of our age and there are good reasons for some things to remain closed. Jury deliberations are a prime example – and perhaps some of the same considerations apply, in a lesser way, to the processes of standards formation.

There have been allegations from some of the sillier partisan commentators that the UK has had its standards processes abused while considering OOXML. But I have seen absolutely no evidence of this; if anything the opposite has been true — because of the publicity around OOXML everybody involved has been ultra-sure to stick exactly to the rules. So while strong opinions, of all shades, have been strongly expressed I do not believe there has been any undue influence exerted. As a small example of the caution used, Microsoft recently distributed two lavishly produced volumes of support for OOXML to BSI committee members, yet because the comment period had been closed for several weeks their contents simply could not be taken into account.

Microsoft's lavish publications

BRM Convenorship

I have been appointed by the SC 34 secretariat as the convenor of the up-coming Ballot Resolution Meeting on OOXML (should it happen). As with UK standardisation I am sure the key to success will be an ultra-conscientious application of the rules. I have made the JTC 1 Directives my constant companion and am working with SC 34 colleagues to make sure my understanding of them is complete.

I have received commiserations from several people on this appointment, and am assured it will be a very stressful experience. However, right now, I am glad to be relieved of the responsibility of having, or expressing, a technical opinion on OOXML, and am looking forward to being a neutral administrator of the standards process ...
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OOXML not blocked by US 
2007-07-18, 12:44
... is an equally valid headline to “OOXML Fails to Gain Approval in US”, the message that has blazed across the blogging firmament. But while both statements are true, they are far from being the whole truth, and – read out of context – are even misleading.

The events in INCIT V1 have been reported with more spin than a Shane Warne leg break — a more accurate headline might be “No consensus on OOXML in the US yet”. But of course that's not so likely to reach the front page of slashdot.

One problem here is that it is a mistake to see this vote in terms of “block” and “no-block”; those voting “disapprove” are in effect voting for conditional approval, something that Sun's Jon Bosak wanted to make crystal clear in the meeting minutes, as evidenced by his publicly-archived email.

[Sun wishes] to make it completely clear that we support DIS 29500 becoming an ISO Standard and are in complete agreement with its stated purposes of enabling interoperability among different implementations and providing interoperable access to the legacy of Microsoft Office documents.

thus (for example) Sun's vote of “disapprove” was quite clearly not, and not intentioned as, a vote to “block”.

A second problem is that this vote does not decide the “US” position, there are other bodies involved in formulating the national vote than INCITS V1.

A third problem is that the vote for the current ballot simply does not decide the fate of OOXML, as I have blogged elsewhere, this ballot is mainly an exercise in comment gathering which fuels the all-important ballot resolution meeting which is likely to take place in Q1 2008.

However much it makes for exciting blogging, it is quite wrong to see the ISO standardisation process as some kind of gladitorial contest which must end with a victor and a corpse. I do wish those with access to “breaking news” (so to speak) would take care to report it in a slightly less confusing manner.
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OOXML - When "No" Means "Conditionally, Yes" 
2007-07-14, 19:09
The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) have been busily running a campaign called noooxml, and encouraging people to sign a petition asking the national members of ISO to vote "NO" to DIS 29500.

The site says “it is urgent that you contact your standardisation body in your country and explain them why OOXML is broken” and warns “OOXML passes if 66% of the voting P-Members vote Approve, and no more than 25% of the total vote (P-Members plus ISO plus IEC) vote Disapprove”.

I don't think this is factually correct, and I don't think the petitioning effort makes too much sense. Here's why...

A Caveat

I should first say that the opinions below represent my own understanding of the onward standardisation process, and that much of this process is new and untested for this kind of standard. That said, I don't know of any better readings than the one I am presenting, which has been reached after a careful reading of the JTC 1 Directives and discussion with ISO national body participants from a number of countries.

Countries Cannot Vote (just) "NO"

At least, not without qualification. The three permitted votes are described in section 9.8 of the Directives:

1. Approval of the technical content of the DIS as presented (editorial or other comments may be appended);

2. Disapproval of the DIS ... for technical reasons to be stated, with proposals for changes that would make the document acceptable (acceptance of these proposals shall be referred to the NB concerned for confirmation that the vote can be changed to approval);

3. Abstention.

Non-technical Comments Are Ignored

[Update, 3 August 2007: The JTC 1 chair, Scott Jameson, has clarified that nobody could hinder national bodies to express any comments they want. This means that non-technical comments may indeed be made!]

The wording above is important. Disapproval shall be “for technical reasons to be stated” This means that a good portion of the comments in the noooxml petition simply cannot figure in a country's voting position, and would be ruled out-of-order if they did.

Also, a disapproving vote has to be accompanied by technical reasons with “proposals for changes that would make the document acceptable”. Thus there is really no kind of absolute “no” only a conditional “yes”. The period for absolute objections was the one month review period at the beginning of the Fast Track process ... we have moved on from that.

It's the BRM, Stupid!

The noooxml site claims that OOXML will pass if the JTC 1 voting criteria are met in the upcoming ballot, but this is not necessarily the case. It's not even clear from the JTC 1 Directives whether the votes from this ballot are even counted. Instead what happens is explained in section 13.6 (abbreviations: SC = standards commitee; NB = national body):

Upon receipt of the ballot results, and any comments, the SC Secretariat shall distribute this material to the SC NBs, to any NBs having voted that are not members of the SC and to the proposer. The NBs shall be requested to consider the comments and to form opinions on their acceptability.

No mention is made of the success or failure of the standard here — the only time this is alluded to is back in section 9.8 which states “if these [JTC 1 voting] criteria are not met initially, but are subsequently met at the conclusion of ballot resolution [meeting] ... the DIS ... is approved”.

So what's happening is that all national comments are combined to form an international pool, and the countries are asked to consider them in their totality. It is these combined comments which form the basis for discussion at a ballot resolution meeting (BRM) which the SC34 secretariat may, at its discretion, call. Note that the secretariat's power of discretion here is absolute. It may take the view (as was taken with Ecma 372) that the comments are “not resolvable”, in which case the process stops and the Fast Track process fails.

Thus it is the ballot resolution meeting, likely to happen early in 2008, which will be the forum in which it is likely DIS 29500's fate will eventually be decided.

Who Attends The BRM?

Now, the arithmetic of this meeting is involved.

First off we have the National Body members of SC34 (a constituency which is growing fast):

NBs of the relevant SC shall appoint to the ballot resolution group one or more representatives who are well aware of the NB’s position. (13.7)

Next, there are the nay-sayers:

NBs having voted negatively, whether or not a NB of the relevant SC, have a duty to delegate a representative to the ballot resolution meeting. (13.7)

and ... that's it. These are the only participants who have to attend. It's quite likely this group of attendees will be preponderantly skeptical about DIS 29500 – the “nay-sayers” are, after all, those whose objections must be overcome for their vote to become a “yes”.

What isn't clear is how many of the “yes” voting countries will attend the BRM. They don't have to. Yet if, during the meeting, consensus breaks down and a vote needs to be taken, then their presence becomes arithmetically important. With approx 150 coutries potentially involved in the vote, the meeting could become quite large ...

And the Lesson Is?

Ultimately, it is likely technical questions which will decide the fate of DIS 29500, and - specifically - whether they will be resolvable by the nations participating in the standardisation process. To influence this process constructively, people need to have submitted good technical comments through the channels their national body will have made available. I am confident, in the UK at least, this has been done.

Hand-waving, lobbying and publicity stunts, in contrast, have little impact on the ISO standardisation process, which is designed to be proof against such things. Campaigns like noooxml generate a lot of excitement but ultimately, I think, don't serve the best interests even of those who, for quite legitimate reasons, want to influence OOXML's progress.
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