UK standards body taken to court over OOXML

The UK Unix & Open Systems Users Group has launched a High Court challenge against the decision by the BSI to approve Microsoft's nascent document format
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The British Standards Institution has been taken to court by a group of Unix users in an attempt to get the standards body to recant its approval of Microsoft's Office Open XML document format.

The UK Unix & Open Systems User Group (UKUUG) said on Thursday that the British Standards Institution's (BSI's) decision to vote for approval of OOXML in a recent International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ballot followed a flawed decision-making process.

The UKUUG is also folding in many other complaints about Office Open XML (OOXML), such as unresolved patent issues and a lack of completion in the specification's documentation, and is calling for the High Court of Justice to force a judicial review of the BSI's decision. The UKUUG is hoping a judicial review would find the BSI decision to be flawed and reverse it.

OOXML is Microsoft's answer to the OpenDocument Format (ODF), an established ISO standard based entirely on open specifications. OOXML is also theoretically open, but central to the UKUUG's legal action is ISO's fast-tracking of the format into standardisation without properly addressing its many unresolved technical flaws — an issue exacerbated by OOXML's extraordinary length as a specification, at 6,000 pages.

Following a highly contentious vote among national standards bodies, ISO announced on 2 April that OOXML was to become an official standard. There is, however, a two-month window following that date, during which the process can be derailed if one of the national standards bodies makes a formal appeal.

Serious objections have been raised within the decision-making community about the approval vote — notably in Norway, by the head of that country's technical committee — but none yet have come officially from any country's national standards body.

The UKUUG has been in existence for 32 years and is, according to Mark Taylor, the head of the Open Source Consortium (OSC), a "venerable organisation of men with long grey beards". "It is a testament to the feeling of injustice here," he told ZDNet.co.uk on Thursday. "This is the first time they've done something like this."

Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Thursday, UKUUG head Alain Williams said his group's objection was that ISO and the BSI were "trying to put forward something that is not fit for purpose". "Microsoft is trying to game the standards process because they don't want a standard that can be implemented by other people," he said. "If they had wanted that, they could have gone with the ODF format [but], if they adopt something like that, they begin to lose their stranglehold on the desktop."

"Something that had that high a level of contention is not suitable for fast-tracking," Williams added, while referring to Ecma — the industry standards body that pushed for OOXML to be fast-tracked by ISO — as a "Microsoft poodle".

Williams claimed the official backing of OOXML would harm not only the UK IT industry, by virtue of perpetuating Microsoft's "monopoly", but the country as a whole by not using an open standard that is guaranteed to be usable into the distant future. "If you're talking about reading documents in one or two hundred years' time, you would have great problems in doing it [with documents based on OOXML]," he said.

The OSC's Taylor told ZDNet.co.uk that the UKUUG's action carried with it "prima facie evidence that the BSI's processes have not been complied with or done in a very strange way".

"A lot of us believe there are questions to be answered," said Taylor. "The remedy that is being sought is a mandatory order to withdraw the BSI's vote approving [OOXML]. The BSI hasn't followed its own processes. For example, the [claim] that it was unanimously decided to pass [OOXML] — it wasn't. People will be called as witnesses to show there are serious problems with the BSI's processes."

Taylor, however, did not express confidence in the ability of the action — if successful — to reverse the ISO vote without similar actions being launched in other countries. "I don't believe the BSI on its own would be sufficient to pull the vote back, but it would certainly make a dent in it," he said. "Should there be others, it would certainly change the percentages [in the ISO tally]."

The BSI had not commented on the UKUUG's legal action at the time of writing.

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