OpenDocument gets ratified by ISO: Whoop-ass or big whoop?

Summary:For proponents of the OpenDocument Format, the long wait from specification publication to supposed international standard is over.  Reports and press releases from all parties with an interest in ODF have been rolling in to inform the world that ODF now has the imprimatur of the International Organisation of Standardization.

For proponents of the OpenDocument Format, the long wait from specification publication to supposed international standard is over.  Reports and press releases from all parties with an interest in ODF have been rolling in to inform the world that ODF now has the imprimatur of the International Organisation of Standardization.  Theoretically, this should give it an advantage over Microsoft's Open XML upon which no such honor has been bestowed.  But does it matter? The ODF Alliance has a press release in PDF format here (why not ODF?. Oh never mind).  But Andrew Updegrove, general counsel to OASIS (the consortium that published ODF), has more:

ODF is now ISO/IEC 26300......While there are still some procedural steps internal to ISO/IEC that are required before the official text of the standard will be finalized and issued, these steps are formalities rather than gating factors. With adoption of ODF by ISO/IEC now assured, software that implements the standard will now become more attractive to those European and other government purchasers for whom global adoption by ISO/IEC is either desirable, or required.

Cause for celebration? Don't get the confetti out yet.  While the imprimatur of the ISO may make it easier for some ODF-compliant IT managers to sleep at night while giving ODF (as document formats go) a supposed leg-up in the standards war over Microsoft's Open XML specification, it may not turn out to be the differentiator that some hoped it would be.  Calling the notion of standards into question in the first place, as the old saying  goes, the best thing about standards is that there's so many of them.  This is no different.  The ISO may have established ODF as the international standard of document formats. But, within the next 12 to 18 months, Microsoft's Open XML is likely to get the ISO's imprimatur as well (making both just a standard).    Updegrove continues:

Microsoft's Open XML specification, also headed for consideration by ISO/IEC, is still in process within Ecma.  Upon completion, it would be submitted to the same voting process.

And Ecma, as far as I'm concerned, is a joke.  Microsoft selected Ecma because Ecma has a status afforded to very few other organizations: it can add any of the specifications it publishes to ISO's fast track for rapid consideration and ratification as an international standard.  In and of itself, that's really not a problem to me. But that, taken in combination with the admission of Ecma's chief that patent holders are free to use Ecma's imprimatur to give their technologies (open or not) a marketplace advantage and that its only natural for Ecma to ratify multiple standards for the same thing is, well, just weird. Said Ecma's Secretarie General Jan van den Beld in an interview I did with him this past December:

Ecma made all standards for DVD — five competing rewriteable/recordable formats.  They all do the same thing.  The reason there are five is that there this is a patent war.  All of those standards have been fast tracked to the ISO and all been approved without any comments.  The ISO cannot decide for one industry group.  It must be neutral.  it can pick one over the other.  There's no possibility for a standards body to decide it in favor of IBM, Sun, or Microsoft.  It's very possible for the ISO to set both standards. There may be overlap, but it doesn't matter.  For the ISO, it's impossible to get in the way of patent wars.

Have patent? Can standardize.  Even if a standard already exists.  That should be Ecma's tagline.  Two standards for the same thing? Five standards for the same thing?  Why bother with standards at all? And, as can be seen from the interview, the ISO is apparently no better.  So, in the big picture, the ODF Alliance can count its chickens for about a year.  But once Microsoft's Open XML gets the same ISO imprimatur that ODF has been blessed with -- and there's no official reason it shouldn't -- then neither badge of honor will carry much weight in the bigger picture.  The playing field will once again be level and the debate over which is better can once again devolve into a question of which is more open, which has more technical merit, which has more backers, and/or which is more broadly adopted by end-users.

Topics: Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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