Has OOXML Broken the British Standards Institution?


Standards are supposed to be about a process of creating points of reference that people can rely upon, arrived at through a process of careful honing and consensus. Against this background, the manner in which Microsoft's OOXML has been put through the ISO has been astonishing. As I've written elsewhere, there is a widespread feeling that the credibility and usefulness of the entire ISO system has been seriously damaged as a result of the way in which OOXML has been put through the national bodies, often by means of unprecedented procedural contortions.

More specific questions about the manner in which the decision to approve OOXML was taken have been raised in a number of countries. For example, as I noted on my other blog, UKUUG, the UK's Unix & Open Systems User Group, was seeking legal advice about the options open to it as a result of its deep unhappiness with what it termed the “rubber-stamping” of OOXML by the BSI (British Standards Institution).

Now, it seems, things have gone much further:

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) controversial 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.

That the BSI, long the quintessence of standards in this country, should see itself dragged through the courts over something as apparently minor as a document standard, is truly an extraordinary development. But of course it is not a minor issue: at stake is the question of how something as central to technology and business as standards should be decided. Unless people have complete confidence in the process, the end-result will be deemed worthless – truly, little more than a “rubber-stamping”.

A good start along the road of bolstering confidence would be making the standards-setting process completely open, which currently it is not. The practice of voting on an open standard behind closed doors is simply not justifiable in the age of the Internet and of increasing openness in general. And as the UK government loves to remind us: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear....