Commenting on the comments on the comments 
2007-09-16, 15:27
Following the publication of the DIS 29500 (OOXML) ballot comments last week, while Ecma are busily de-duplicating and ordering them, commentators have had a chance to make a preliminary assessment. Rick Jelliffe's blog entry, Your country's comments rated! has an interesting table summarising the comments by country, and predicting (from a self-confessed optimistisic view point) how each country will eventually vote.

Rick identifies four categories of comment:

— “a sea of details that are eminently fixable” (typos, syntanctic errors, etc.);
— “a few touchstone issues that may be tricky”;
— “various non-starters”;
— comments which are “off-topic”.

The first category is uncontentious — in fact I have not heard anyone disagree that the raft of syntactic and editorial errors in the text should be corrected; that's a given.

The last categorisation is also straightforward. The BRM can (effectively) only take decisions on the text which can be implemented by the project editor. Discussion of legal and IPR issues at the BRM is out-of-scope and would be pointless. Countries that have concerns in this area need to pursue them directly with JTC 1, and not wait until the BRM.

It is the middle two categories which represent issues that are potentially (to use Rick's word) “tricky”. In these categories we have some big technical changes to consider, such as removing VML from the text (actually, I don't see this as too hard a change – an ISO standard can always reference the Ecma 376 version of VML as an example of a format that may be used within OOXML at large). Other apparently simple changes might be tricky too, such as renaming the technology to “ODDL” (Office Document Description Language), as proposed by the UK. While this is editorially straightforward I can imagine it causing migraines in Microsoft's marketing departments. Trickiness is in the eye of the beholder, and I expect the participants at the BRM will take very different views on what's easy, what's tricky, and what's a non-starter.

Groklaw on being helpful

Meanwhile, over at Groklaw in the article Countries' Comments on MS OOXML - How You Can Help an interesting debate broke our between those who advocated setting up a Wiki to enable contributors to help order and respond to comments (“Imagine if Groklaw itself became the premier source of information on OOXML comments, containing source-text, links, categories, etc.”) and those who say “not our problem” (“[…] we should not be helping Microsoft and ECMA to resolve the comments.”).

Groklaw had been a noticeable presence in this standardisation project, though their contribution has often been (to use Tim Bray's word) overamped, and I can think of more than one standardiser who got as sick of Groklaw's “EOOXML objections” as they did of Microsoft's form letters. Nevertheless, the idea that part of the “FOSS community” (such as it is) might be able to coordinate a high-quality response to the NB comments is intriguing. The time limits of the BRM mean it will be difficult for participants to create proposals on the fly, so any pre-packaged “alternative” proposals for NBs to consider could be of great help in enriching the debate. I would enter the caveat, however, that NBs are unlikely to be interested in considering or adopting proposals which do not contribute, in good faith, to the improvement of the text.
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OOXML ballot comments 
2007-09-09, 10:46
The DIS 29500 ballot comments have been published on the SC34 web site (ZIP of Word documents).

Glancing through them, I am struck by how much is word-for-word identical between countries. Maybe countries shared comments (and certainly the open Wiki for UK comments may have been a source), or maybe some of the larger multi-national organisations reviewing DIS 29500 fed their pooled comments down to many different nations. Ultimately, though, the source of comments does not matter; what matters is whether they have technical merit.

Ecma, faced with the unenviable task of handling these comments, will need to de-duplicate them. My impression is that this will reduce the headline figure of “thousands” of comments to “hundreds”. I suspect the majority of these will probably prove resolvable without contention (indeed Ecma's own submission of around 80 comments already points in this direction). This will leave us with “scores” of comments, some of which could prove decidedly thorny. France's proposal, for example, that a core subset of OOXML is extracted for harmonisation with ODF, is unlikely to go through on the nod. And some types of comments, in the legal/IPR domain (demanding disclosure of patent information, for example) will need to be addressed in forums other than the BRM, which is concerned with creating the text of a technical specification, not a legal document.

When “Yes” means “No”?

One curiosity of the ballot results is the degree of skepticism accompanying the votes of approval. Normally an approval vote in an ISO ballot means that the technical content has been approved. However, some of the comments accompanying approval votes look to me like they crave resolution. Indeed, Greece has gone so far as to accompany its approval vote with the following statement:

If the Ballot Resolution Group fails to resolve satisfactorily the issues, then ELOT will reconsider its position and may cast a vote of disapproval during the BRG meeting(s) according to article 13.8 of the JTC1 directives, or may even appeal to the final adoption of the Standard.

This introduces a complication for the BRM. As convenor, one of my responsibilities is to run the meeting in a such a way that it maximises the chances of approving a text. One natural way of doing this is to de-prioritise comments that accompanied an approval vote, on the basis that those countries are already happy with the text. However, for Greece this evidently isn't an accurate assumption – and the same may be true of other countries too. I need to find out which ...
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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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