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IBM warns standards bodies to shape up

In the wake of ISO's approval of Microsoft's OOXML, IBM has joined calls for standard-body reform

IBM has issued a warning to international standards body ISO in the wake of its approval of Microsoft's OOXML.

Unless the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other bodies are open and accountable, IBM could bow out of their standards work, according to a new IT standards policy the company issued today.

IBM will "begin or end participation in standards bodies based on the quality and openness of their processes, membership rules and intellectual property policies", according to the policy, which IBM developed through a six-week online 'wiki' discussion among 70 leading figures in international standards work.

The IBM-led discussion began in the aftermath of the approval of Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML) as a formal document standard by ISO in April. Initially rejected by ISO members, OOXML was approved after a week-long ballot-resolution meeting. Supporters of the rival ODF document standard alleged that national bodies had been stacked with Microsoft supporters, and objected to the fast-track process by which another body, ECMA, submitted OOXML to ISO.

IBM is not threatening to back out of ISO or other bodies immediately, according to spokesman Michael Kiess. "Resignation would be the very, very, very last consequence," he said, "This is not about bagging up our marbles and strolling away from the game."

IBM does not even have plans to leave ECMA, despite criticisms by IBM's vice president for standards, Bob Sutor, that ECMA had perpetrated "an utter and predictable embarrassment" over its OOXML activity.

"We have no intention to create a new standards body," said Kiess. "We have a good set of standards organisations around the world, and we would like to be a positive and productive member of this community." IBM has hundreds of engineers working in standards groups, he said.

Despite this, the document outlines IBM's expectations for standards work in a list that takes in all the major criticisms of the OOXML process. "OOXML was just the last prominent example," said Kiess. "It persuaded us to kick-start the process."

Even without a threat to withdraw, IBM's stance, if backed by other vendors, could provoke a serious shake-up of standards work. The company has published the recommendations from its discussion, including a call for "review and pervasive reform" of the directives and processes of ISO's IT standards arm, ISO/IEC JTC1, and Kiess says: "We hope others will join us."

"While IBM's standards activities are formidable, IBM still controls only one vote within any single standards organisation," said IT standards law expert Andy Updegrove, one of the moderators of the IBM-led wiki, on his blog. "As a result, it will be significant to see whether it is successful in inspiring other companies (and particularly those that were its allies in the ODF-OOXML competition, such as Google and Oracle) to make statements of active support for these same principles."

IBM is joining a swell of criticism against ISO. Four ISO members, the national standards bodies of Brazil, India, South Africa and Ecuador, had formal appeals against the OOXML decision rejected by ISO in August. Those nations were joined this month by Cuba and Paraguay, in a formal declaration that stated ISO standards could no longer be assumed to be vendor-neutral.

"ISO could write off the open-source community, but IBM has been part of the standard setting process for most of its 100 years or so of existence," said Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium. "They will have to sit up and listen now."

ISO is a non-governmental organisation formed in the 1940s, whose members are the national standards bodies of 157 countries.

ISO and ECMA were contacted for comment, but did not respond by press time.