ISO Ill at Ease Over OOXML


The nominal approval of OOXML last month unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of anger, with much of that ire directed at the ISO for failing to uphold basic standards during the process. This has prompted it to respond with a rather interesting FAQ in which it desperately tries to defend itself.

For example, try the following for size:

As stipulated in the ISO/IEC JTC 1 Directives under the section relating to the fast-track process, the criteria for proposing an existing industry standard for the fast-track procedure are a matter for each proposer to decide. In the case of ISO/IEC 29500, Ecma International considered that the fast-track procedure was appropriate.

Translation: don't blame us for the ridiculous fast-tracking, it was all ECMA's fault. Except that you would have thought that ISO might have some say on the matter - unless, of course, ISO is little more than a rubber-stamping service these days.

Then there's this:

some claim that the Open Document Format (ODF), which is also an ISO/IEC standard (ISO/IEC 26300) and ISO/IEC 29500 are competing solutions to the same problem, while others claim that ISO/IEC 29500 provides additional functionalities, particularly with regard to legacy documents.

This is amazing: since when did proprietary lock-in represent “additional functionality”? That's a bit like saying handcuffs offer “additional functionality” to boring old handcuff-less freedom. Proprietary lock-in - even when dignified with the euphemistic moniker of "legacy documents" - is what open standards are supposed to avoid; touting it as an “extra” is a simple betrayal of the fundamental underlying idea.

This is pretty astonishing too:

The ability to have both as International Standards was something that needed to be decided by the market place. ISO and IEC and their national members provided the JTC 1 infrastructure that facilitated such a decision by the market players.

As any fule kno, the market is supposed to decide *between different implementations* of the same standard: that's what standards are for, to level the playing field. If not, the logic would be that we need lots and lots of completely different standards so that the market can sort them out – which, again, is precisely the kind of mess that standardisation is designed to avoid.

Even this is misleading:

The ISO/IEC/ITU patent policy requires that licenses be available on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms and conditions to all patents needed to implement an ISO/IEC International Standard and/or ITU Recommendation, and that all identified patent owners make a declaration to that effect.

As is well known, “reasonable and non-discriminatory” (RAND) just doesn't work for free software. It would be quite within the bounds to demand a payment of one millionth of a penny per copy for a payment from everybody – eminently reasonably, and quite non-discriminatory, but utterly impossible for open source. Microsoft can scupper any attempt to implement its patents with free code by demanding just such a RAND payment for some patent that pops up, and ISO, by its own admission, can do nothing.

In other words, ISO's FAQ, designed to quell the storm, ends up confirming many of the very issues its critics have raised, and feeding it. Well, I suppose that's a kind of progress.