What's Next for OOXML?

Lora Bentley

With Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.


Question: What does the "no" ISO vote mean for Office OpenXML? What happens next?
Zemlin: It means that the thousands of comments that have been submitted will have to be taken seriously, as they should. Ecma and Microsoft will have about four and a half months to propose comment by comment resolutions, which can range from, "agree," to "disagree, and here's why," with various flavors in between (e.g., "we suggest doing this instead"). After that, the members of SC 34, a JTC1 committee, will have about six weeks to pour over and discuss the proposals (other members will be able to review them as well). From February 25 to 29, all of those who voted no and the members of SC 34 will be entitled and encouraged to attend the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in Geneva and attempt to go through all of these proposals and decide what to do about them - a huge and perhaps over-ambitious task. Note, by the way, that SC 34 has ballooned recently, just as the P (participating) membership has. In fact, it has more than doubled in size in the last few months, with many of the new members being the same countries that upgraded to P status.


It's also possible that Microsoft and Ecma, after reviewing the comments, may decide that the comments would be so difficult to accommodate that they will conclude that they are "irresolvable," or that SC 34, after reviewing the proposals, may decide the same thing. In either case, that could result in the cancellation of the BRM meeting, and the cancellation of the OOXML process.


If the BRM does occur, there are several possible outcomes: agreement is reached, and OOXML is revoted and accepted; agreement is not reached, and a revote fails; or the process is deemed irresolvable and abandoned. If a revote fails, Ecma could try and restart the process all over again.


Question: Does all the lobbying and the influx of member status changes (from observer to participating) set a poor precedent for voting on later standards?
Zemlin: Absolutely. When a large contingent of countries change their status at the last minute - coming out of the bushes, if you will - after having heard only one side of the argument, and vote almost unanimously as a block (9 out of 11 voted to approve, without comments), it calls into question the integrity of the process. Why bother to work so hard on a 6,000-plus page specification in a rushed process in order to try and turn a poorly conceived specification into a good one, if all your work could be thrown out through such a ploy?


It's significant that Microsoft's Director of Corporate Standards, Jason Matusow, warned in advance in his blog as follows: "There is no question that all over the world the competing interests in the Open XML standardization process are going to use all tactics available to them within the rules."


There are three things to note in that regard: First, only one side used those tricks - none of the evidence points to anyone else doing anything remotely similar, while the voting record speaks for itself (e.g., the P upgrades almost all voting as a block). Second, there were tricks played that did violate the rules - such as in Sweden, where the committee was packed, and where Microsoft admitted offering "marketing incentives" to offset the costs of joining the committee. And third, the rules that Microsoft is talking about staying within are based upon an assumption of good faith. It's easy - as this experience shows - to nominally stay within those rules while abusing that good faith. A very sorry story all around, and very damaging to the integrity of the process.


Question: Has such lobbying gone on in the past?
Zemlin: I have repeatedly heard people say that "this type of thing only happens about once every ten years," since most people respect the intent as well as the letter of the rules.


Question: Do you think it will bring about the desired result, or will it backfire?
Zemlin: I think that it already has backfired. I'm aware of at least one National Body that might have voted "yes with comments" if they hadn't felt abused. Going forward, there will be even more attention paid to how things proceed. A remarkable aspect of this experience is how the open source community, and others, have become energized at the grass roots level. Much of what went on here never would have been known without the actions of individuals to keep an eye on things, to funnel information to bloggers and journalists, and for bloggers to help spread the word. That level of attention, and those thousands of eyes, will continue to be trained on the process through to its conclusion, whatever that may be. The Linux Foundation will be watching, too.

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