OOXML appeals fail to convince National Bodies on Technical Management Board

By Rick Jelliffe
August 17, 2008

Four of the eighty four (or so) national standards bodies who participated in the ISO/IEC JTC1 vote on Office Open XML (Draft International Standard DIS29500) submitted protests after their position (to reject the standard) did not prevail against the the super-majority (more than 2/3 in favour and less than 1/4 against: the voting allows "abstain" as a middle position) of national standards bodies that accepted DIS 29500.

Background: The initial ballot on DIS 29500 in 2007 resulted in a defeat, with national standards bodies indicating many technical issues that would need to be corrected before the draft would be acceptable; in February 2008 a Ballot Resolution Meeting was held which resulted in more than a thousand changes (indeed, perhaps ten thousand changes or double checks were required from these issues.) The standard's status was accepted (as IS29500) but remained unpublished, pending the resolution of the appeal.

The four national bodies (Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela) who appealed did so on a variety of grounds. Under ISO/IEC rules, the appeals first go to the Technical Management Board who decide, in consideration of a review by the ISO and IEC Secretariats, whether each appeal should be progressed to something called a Conciliation Panel.

Background: Given the large numbers of national bodies who finally voted, and the ballot outcome of acceptance, the continuing maintenance process at SC34, IMHO it is quite unlikely that the outcome of a Conciliation Panel would be the withdrawal of IS 29500: it would be more likely to be a revision of procedures, which would likely take the form of recommendations for revisions to the JTC1 or ISO Directives (governing documents.)

The Secretaries General of ISO and IEC first sought additional information from the appealing national bodies, some but not all of the parts of the appeals being rather, err, sketchy and unfocused. The Secretaries General then recommended against the appeals. This is not surprising, as both ISO and IEC sent some of their top brass to the Ballot Resolution Meeting to sit at the table and advise the convenor on what acceptable practice was, because it was reasonably anticipated that the BRM had participants who were dead-set against DIS29500 acceptance.

Background: Prior to the BRM, opposition thought-leaders to OOXML had stated that bringing the process into disrepute would be effective for their cause even if they lost ballot, and the ISO and IEC Secretariats were keen to make sure that the rules were followed without favour to either side, hence their attendance. In particular, the Secretariats did not allocate extra time for the Ballot Resolution Meeting: it shows the kind of damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't position of the bureaucracy that allocating extra time could be seen as favoritism towards DIS29500 (in that it would allow more issues to be dealt with explicitly and therefore increase the chance of acceptance) but the lack of extra time was given as one of the reasons against adoption of DIS29500 (either for the sensible reason of quality or the nonsensical reason that somehow NBs had missed fatal flaws and would come to their senses if given more time.)

On Friday last week, the Technical Management Board (comprised of various National Bodies) narrowly declined to forward the appeals to a Conciliation Panel. This frees up IS29500 to be published.

Background: It should be noted that TMB members who voted in favour of fowarding the appeals do not necessarily endorse the contents of the appeal: in fact, it seems that some of the NBs who voted in favour of forwarding the appeal had also voted to accept DIS 29500. Even though I support having a standard for IS29500, I don't think it would be end of the world to have had a conciliation panel discussing the appeal issues, as long as (and this is a point that one of the appeals actually made) the maintenance process of IS 29500 was not held up by the appeal.

Despite some comments around the place, the appeals process is not necessarily over. Any of the appeal nations can further appeal the TMB decision.

One of the most severe critics of the JTC1 Directives as currently formulated is ODF Editor's Patrick Durusau who has written

Appealing ISO/IEC 29500 will not benefit anyone, no matter how the appeal turns out. ... The only difference is the loss of at least 240 days after (approximately 8 months) we could spend re-casting the Directives ...

Readers might have gleaned that I think that some (but not all) of the specific appeals were pretty shoddy, ill-cast, and blamed the process for inadequacies in the NBs abilities to review, to adequately prepare for the BRM, and to convince other NBs of their viewpoint. Frankly, if you want something adopted by a BRM (or even by a normal working group or committee) you need to arrive at the BRM with fairly specific text and to have established a consensus on the need and shape of the changes before the meeting. You don't blame the process for your own inadequacies: it looks snotty, or at least not manly (if that can be used with gender considerations.) Inexperience is not a flaw, but it is rare that someone can be effective without experience and the way to have experience is to participate for the long haul.

Consider a change to support better accessibility: delegations will always vote in favour of better accessibility if there is any supporting evidence for it; contrast this with a vague requirement for adding thousands of pages of unseen, unvetted, unconsidered documentation on a binary mapping from the 40+ .DOC formats to OOXML: there is absolutely no chance of such a thing being adopted by any meeting. It is perfectly acceptable for a National Body to say "We cannot vote for DIS29500 because we believe its scope is wrong and it needs to include binary mapping information" but somewhere between vexatious, amateurish or boorish to demand that the BRM should spend time considering an impossible-to-resolve-in-time issues over possible-to-resolve issues or that somehow other National Bodies who voted to accept DIS 29500 were not notified and aware of an issue raised during the initial ballot. (For example, I raised the issue of the standard's name a couple of times to have it knocked back from discussion: I disagreed with the decision but I accept that prioritization had to occur that that they would not necessarily be my own or my NB's priorities. )

Background: It is the convenor of a meeting's duty to prevent ludicrous issues wasting the time of other delegations who have turned up at great cost with the expectation of ploughing through their issues, especially the issues where the Editor's Disposition of Comments represents improvement over the original text. (However, sometimes the convenor can get it wrong. And even if the ISO and IEC have people sitting at the table, they can get it wrong too. But everyone who actively and passsionately participates in meetings will feel at various times that an important point they have made did not get through. C'est la vie.)

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