Expert: Fast-track ISO bid for OOXML is fair

Former official from Ecma International defends bid to hasten ISO process for Microsoft's document standard as necessary to ensure technological relevance.

KUALA LUMPUR--A European standards expert has defended the move to fast-track the ISO approval process for Microsoft's Open XML (OOXML) document standard, dismissing criticisms that the decision to do so is flawed and unfair.

Jan van den Beld, the former secretary general of European standards organization Ecma International, said the fast-track process was necessary to ensure proposed standards are not technologically outdated by the time they are approved years later.

The Dutchman was instrumental in getting the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to adopt the fast-track process for standardization in 1987. Ecma's secretary general from 1991 to 2007, he was involved in over 200 fast-track proposals to the ISO.

"There is nothing unusual for Ecma to opt for the fast-track option. It's the only lean process that the ISO has."
-- Jan van den Beld,
former Ecma official

According to van den Beld, who was in the Malaysian capital last week for a standards forum, it takes an average of 32 months for ISO to adopt a standard via the conventional approval process. In some cases, it may take up to four years, he added. A fast-track route can shorten this process to between six and 18 months.

The ISO had created the fast-track process as a way to allow standards organizations, such as Ecma, to submit their existing standards for approval as an ISO standard. OOXML was approved by Ecma in December 2006.

Van den Beld said there was nothing questionable about placing Open XML on the fast-track process for adoption.

"In the past 20 years, Ecma had brought some 250 proposed standards through the fast-track process at ISO, of which only three were unsuccessful," he said. "In total, some 325 standards have been adopted through the fast-track process at the ISO."

"So, there is nothing unusual for Ecma to opt for the fast-track option. It's the only lean process that the ISO has," he added. "People who are against OOXML will say the messenger is bad, the process is bad... At the moment, this is still the best [method] that ISO has."

OOXML is the rival document standard to the OpenDocument Format (ODF), which is already ISO-certified and has been championed by open source vendors and IT giants such as IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Ecma failed in a ballot last September to gain ISO approval for OOXML. Malaysia voted to abstain while other Asian countries including India, Iran, Japan and Korea, voted "no". Singapore gave its support for Open XML.

Malaysia's Department of Standards (Standards Malaysia) issued a statement earlier this month, noting that the majority of technical issues it raised regarding Open XML had not been addressed satisfactorily during ISO's Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva last month.

However, van den Beld argued that national bodies had more than enough time, spanning September 2007 to last month's ballot meeting, to resolve issues pertaining to the OOXML specification.

Provide a "level playing field"
Further defending Ecma's bid to fast-track the ISO approval process, he said the alternative scenario would require national standards bodies to attend monthly ISO meetings. "This will end up like the United Nations," said van den Beld, and challenged critics to come up with a better process.

He added that in the run-up to the ballot resolution meeting, Ecma had organized weekly teleconferences and e-mail interaction with delegates to discuss critical issues relating to the specification.

"So you must not reproach the organization or the process and say there was not enough time. Ecma was not doing it in secret," said van den Beld. "The ISO must provide a level playing field for all sorts of technologies. They cannot say 'no' to A and 'yes' to B [or] they will lose their neutrality."

He also advised governments against mandating just one document standard as it may run foul of polices set by the World Trade Organization (WTO), opening themselves to possible legal challenges. "One of the big concerns of the WTO is that you should not use standards as a barrier to trade," he said.

"If a government enforces [the use of one standard], that would mean the whole country is not allowed to use OOXML. They could get into a very difficult legal situation as this could be challenged legally," noted van den Beld.

In addition, he said, governments that mandate the exclusive use of one standard may end up using outdated technologies that will be overtaken by more innovative technologies.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the final ISO vote on Open XML, expected out at the end of March, van den Beld said the battle between the Microsoft standard and ODF will continue. "The commercial war will go on independent of standards," he said.

He added that it was "naive" for anyone to expect Microsoft's commercial activities to be adversely affected by attempts to block the OOXML specification from obtaining ISO certification.

Van den Beld said some 300 companies worldwide are already developing technology and products based on Open XML, based on the fact that it is an Ecma-approved standard.

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.