Critics brand OOXML a Microsoft 'marketing tool'

XML author Tim Bray has accused Microsoft of pursuing OOXML standardisation for marketing purposes, while others claim the ISO process is 'broken' and 'politicised'
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The developer of XML and a former International Organization for Standardization committee chair have both claimed that Microsoft was interested in having Office Open XML accredited as an international standard in order to forward the company's wider interests.

Tim Bray, the writer of XML, wrote in his blog on Thursday that Microsoft pushed for its Office Open XML (OOXML) standard to be accredited by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) so that the software giant could use the accreditation as a "marketing tool".

However, now that Microsoft OOXML has been ratified as an international standard — ISO/IEC 29500 — Bray said that Microsoft would be unlikely to participate in the ongoing review process of the standard in any major capacity.

"What Microsoft really wanted was that ISO stamp of approval to use as a marketing tool," wrote Bray. "And, just like your mother told you, when they get what they want and have their way with you, they're probably not gonna call you in the morning."

On 2 April, Microsoft's OOXML standard, which had previously been accredited by standards body Ecma, gained enough votes to be ratified by the ISO document-format committee, SC 34.

In an email exchange with ZDNet.co.uk, Dr James D Mason, who until last autumn was the chair of SC 34, echoed Bray's views. "I didn't think [OOXML] needed to be a standard; getting it that designation is like vanity-press publishing," wrote Mason on Thursday. However, he added that OOXML was "a very valuable collection of information and it's a good thing to get it published where people can use it".

However, Mason severely criticised the standard, saying it was more a Microsoft Office product-development guide than a specification.

"My biggest complaint about the thing wasn't that [ISO/IEC] 29500 shouldn't have been a standard, but that it was a lousy piece of writing," Mason continued. "It's, at best, a tutorial and user's guide for people who want to build products around Office, and neither the Ecma nor the ISO process did anything to turn it into a specification. And Microsoft's internal documentation group pretty obviously didn't have time to make it a good document when someone in the political side of Microsoft decided to dump it on Ecma."

Mason, who represents the US Department of Energy in US national body the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), wrote that, rather than building an abstract model and then trying to implement it, Microsoft had built a product and then attempted to write a standard describing it.

"We know that most of ISO/IEC 29500 has been implemented; the questions for a lot of us are mainly over whether the standard really describes the product accurately," wrote Mason.

Microsoft's behaviour in pursuing ISO fast-track accreditation included encouraging Microsoft partners to join the national standards bodies that feed into ISO to vote in favour of OOXML. The company's actions in pursuing standardisation prompted protests outside a plenary ISO session in Oslo earlier this month. Mason said that Microsoft's actions to push through the standard showed that the ISO fast-track accreditation process was "broken".

"It's fairly clear that the process is broken; even some people at Microsoft think that," wrote Mason. "It's supposed to be a democratic process, driven by national standards bodies, each of which can set its own procedures. The recent experience shows that that is full of pitfalls: small national bodies simply don't have the resources to do an adequate job of participating in lots of committees. They're generally volunteer organisations and they take all the help they can get. So, if Microsoft sends a volunteer, they take him."

Mason added that large national bodies, such as INCITS [International Committee for Information Technology Standards], are heavily politicised, and that often prevents decisive action. "V1, which does SC 34 work in INCITS, was at a stalemate, and INCITS cast a US vote that represented political decisions by the board rather than technical consideration of the issues," he said.

However, ISO on Friday denied that the passage of ISO/IEC 29500 showed that its processes were broken. In an email exchange with ZDNet.co.uk, an ISO spokesperson insisted that its fast-track process functioned properly.

"The ISO process continues to work well, producing about 100 new and revised standards every month," wrote the spokesperson. "The ISO process continues to deliver voluntary international standards that are broadly accepted in the marketplace and by regulators, consumers, governments and other interests. ISO enjoys high credibility through developing standards that are practical tools to help ensure criteria such as health, safety, security, quality, efficiency, compatibility and environmental care in products and services."

The ISO spokesperson said that it was not ISO's responsibility to police its democratic processes, and that Microsoft's behaviour, or any other company's, would not invalidate the decision to ratify the standard.

"Companies have no direct vote on the international standards, which are adopted according to voting by member countries," wrote the spokesperson. "ISO/IEC 29500 has been adopted as a standard as a result of a vote open to 104 member countries of ISO and IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission], out of which 87 voted. As a stakeholder in the process, Microsoft and other interests certainly participated in the process to establish national positions. This determination of national positions is the responsibility of the relevant ISO or IEC national body."

However, the ISO spokesperson added that the organisation may change its fast-track processes, partly as a consequence of the events surrounding ISO/IEC 29500.

"The issue of revising the fast-track procedure, or any other ISO or IEC procedure, is an ongoing process, and the experience with ISO/IEC 29500, along with the results of other standards-development activities, will indeed assist to determine whether further continued improvements should be made," wrote the ISO spokesperson.

Critics of the OOXML standard include the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), which has argued that OOXML achieving ISO certification will result in governments accepting OOXML as a recognised document format, encouraging its use to the exclusion of others. The FSFE argued that this could lock governments into perpetual licensing relationships with Microsoft, as documents need to be kept in perpetuity.

The European Commission's antitrust arm is currently investigating whether Microsoft abused its position in the run-up to OOXML being accepted as an international standard.

Microsoft had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

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