OOXML certification is a tragedy

Microsoft logo.png I have been involved in the local debate about whether to certify Microsoft’s Office Open XML document format as a South African and international standard. Although I represented a local non-profit called The African Commons Project, this post represents my own views and not necessarily the TACP’s. For those who don’t know what this whole thing is about, I’ll present a simplified version.

Microsoft has a new document standard which emerged in Office 2007. You may already be using it without knowing it (.docx, .xlsx etc). Anyway, Microsoft wanted that document format to be certified as an ISO standard which is a pretty important certification as far as standards go. To get there it had the document format certified by a smaller standards body called ECMA (which was done) and then, through ECMA, it was placed on a fast track process. The idea behind the fast track process in this case was to push the document format through as quickly as possible.

The whole process was controversial and attracted a fortune of interest from multinationals like IBM and Sun (both companies argued vigorously against certification). The document format specification was extremely long (over 6 000 pages) and was incomplete. There was a fortune of legacy code in the format which didn’t seem to make all that much sense to the more technical people. To me the debate came down to an open access/public benefit issue. Was certification of Office Open XML good for communities like our rural poor and the developing world as a whole? Of course my response was (and remains) “no”. I gave a presentation at one of the early meetings of the taskforce convened to debate the issue at South African National Standards which I’d like to share. There is a lot of talking behind the scenes but you’ll get the gist of my arguments.

ISO announced the result of the international voting process a couple days ago and while there were hopes that Microsoft would be defeated, its application was successful. One of the contributing factors is almost certainly Microsoft’s somewhat questionable tactics in securing countries’ support for its format and where I was mildly indifferent to Microsoft before the debate, this experience has on polarised me against Microsoft on these sorts of issues.

There has been talk about how this process reflects what is right and “what needs to be done”. Mostly this talk is from people and organisations who seem to me to be closely aligned with Microsoft (at best) or firmly in Microsoft’s pocket (at worst). This has been an important issue for Microsoft because certification as an ISO standard is the key to big procurement contracts by governments around the world, to name one customer base. It has been a high stakes game in which Microsoft has fought hard to protect its interests.

The Oracle, writing on Lockergnome, makes an appropriate point in a brief discussion about a ZDNet article about the vote:

The article doesn’t have anything to say about the methods used to convince the voters, but in the first and second rounds allegations of payoffs and ‘deals’ were leveled at the Redmond giant. The resultant investigations proved nothing about outright bribery, but details of dealing were shown. Since the ’standard’ could not garner a simple majority before, yet amazingly achieves a 75% share of the votes this time, with few changes to the standard, it does make the thoughtful person wonder.

It does indeed.

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