The failure of the ISO: OOXML battles will continue elsewhere

April 1, 2008

I’ve been doing some additional reading this morning to follow up on my last post about Microsoft’s twisted efforts to shove OOXML through the International Standards Organization (ISO). While we won’t know the outcome of the votes for sure until Wednesday, it looks like the ISO has been captured. There are already a number of interesting resistance strategies brewing.

Glynn Moody has a provocative analysis of the whole situation in Linux Journal. Moody argues that Microsoft’s own reputation may have passed the point of no return, but that these latest actions could have a disastrous effect on the credibility and legitimacy of global standards making bodies:

So what have we got as a result of all these machinations? Well, assuming it’s passed (it’s still not clear, as I write), a standard that is so broken that even if anyone else tried to implement its 6000 pages, they couldn’t. Which is precisely what Microsoft wants: OOXML will be an ISO standard that only one company is able to implement fully. But it’s better than that. Microsoft doesn’t even have to stick with its new “standard”: it can simply change OOXML as it wishes, and submit it again to the ISO for approval as an updated “standard”; meanwhile, it can sell its “new and improved ” OOXML that isn’t exactly a standard, but soon will be, so why worry about the details?

In a sense, that’s what Microsoft has been doing for the last decade anyway, with a de facto rather than de jure standard. So it won’t change much, even if ODF’s progress will be set back somewhat as momentum keeps Microsoft Office in use. But along the way, something terrible has happened: Microsoft has managed to besmirch the entire ISO process, which is now effectively worthless. Microsoft has shown that it knows how to get what it wants there, and will doubtless be applying that knowledge to further “standards” in the future. ISO has turned from being a kind of gold standard, into a worthless rubber stamp wielded at the behest of the rich and ruthless.

Moody goes on to claim that the European Commission has the best chance of firing back at Redmond and advocates some immediate grassroots action:

Leaving aside the intriguing idea that approving two, rival document standards may fall foul of the World Trade Organisation, there is also the interesting prospect of the EU getting interested. Some in Denmark have have already already complained to the EU about OOXML, and a posting from Poland claims that “the European Commission is currently investingating the Polish OOXML standarization process.” And this is on top of an earlier statement from the European Commission that it would be examining “whether Microsoft’s new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors’ products.” Microsoft may have won the ISO battle, but it could well end up losing the rather more important war with the European Commission, which has already shown itself deeply unimpressed with Microsoft’s approach to business.

Writing to MEPs (if you’re European) or to Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Competition, (if you’re not) is one obvious action we can all take to press for an independent, transparent inquiry into possible irregularities during the OOXML voting process in Europe.

Excellent idea – I’ll be sending in an email later this afternoon. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a WTO challenge so quickly. Sure, the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (ATBT) has been used to pry open EU markets for GMO foods and organisms, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be turned against a redundant, flawed “standard” like OOXML. Nevertheless, I’m not clear as to how this process could move forwards (even after sifting through pages of the ATBT website) . Would the EC challenge the ISO? Would they challenge Microsoft directly? It’s not totally clear. This lengthy analysis of the ATBT suggests that dispute mechanisms exist, but the structure seems geared towards state-vs-state disputes (much like the WTO Tribunal in general) and I just don’t know how the EC could go about disputing the OOXML standard in this case.

In typical, innovative fashion, Brazilian OOXML opponents have already begun moving on an alternative strategy. Projeto Software Livre reports (in Portuguese) that São Paulo representative Paulo Texeira has introduced a proposal for a federal law accepting the ODF standard. While I’m neither a lawyer, nor an expert on Brazilian regulatory practices, the adoption of such a law could create a legal basis for the domestic rejection of OOXML.

While Brazil’s actions might not have the same financial or political sting of the EC’s, it’s state-led adoption of ODF could become a model for other countries that resent Microsoft’s manipulation of the standards-making process.

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