Whatever Happened to Standards?

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The British Standards Institution (BSI) has always been one of those iconic central points of reference in British life – a kind of Big Ben for standards. But it's a little hard to square that image – perhaps hopelessly outdated – with the BSI's recent decision to vote in favour of Microsoft's OOXML document standard.

You don't have to take my word for this cognitive dissonance. Someone rather more qualified than me to comment on the process to produce the final version of the proposed standard is Tim Bray. He's generally credited with being one of the fathers of XML, which of course lies at the heart of OOXML. It's true he's currently employed by Sun, the main backer of the rival ODF standard, and so potentially biased, but I don't think anybody has ever impugned his integrity because of that.

Unfortunately, his comments on the recent Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva are not printable in a family publication like this blog; those made of sterner stuff can find them at the end of this post. Suffice it to say that he left no doubt about the farcical nature of the BRM process. Indeed, that's pretty easy for anyone to deduce from the cold facts: of the 1000 or so comments that needed resolving there before OOXML could even begin to be considered something worth elevating to an ISO standard, only a couple of hundred could be dealt with properly in the few days allotted by the BRM process. The rest – around 800, forming the vast majority – were simply voted through en masse, without any further examination of the points they raised, much less any attempt to deal with them. So it's easy to imagine the ragbag state of the OOXML proposal – already ridiculously long at 6000 pages – with some new additions sitting alongside older sections whose problems and inconsistencies had not been resolved at the BRM.

Against that background, it's hard to fathom quite how the BSI decided to bless that conceptual mess with its “yes” vote. Why would an organisation that has hitherto had a reputation for the setting the highest standards seek to associate itself with something that will prove to an immense embarrassment to anyone associated with it – well, everyone except the evidently shameless Microsoft - as the truth about its real state becomes plain to anyone that tries to build on it?

I've written elsewhere at great – some would say too great – length about how the entire ISO process has been undermined by Microsoft's determination to “win” what is meant to be a consensual process at all costs – never mind that in doing so it has probably fatally damaged the credibility of the ISO too. But what concerns me here is the collateral damage this whole sorry episode has inflicted on our very own BSI, which also emerges with little honour from its inexplicable turnaround - from voting “no” to a bad specification to voting “yes” to a worse one.

The strange goings-on across Europe – also detailed in the article mentioned above – mean that an independent, transparent inquiry into the whole OOXML saga, perhaps under the auspices of the European Commission, is indispensable. Since the National Bodies have nothing to hide, they will presumably have no objection to contributing to this, and it would be good to see the BSI providing a full and frank account of why it took the action it did.

At the moment, it doesn't seem we going to get anything of the kind, according to this BSI email published on Groklaw:

It is not BSI's policy to make public the details of how it votes on International Standards. BSI sent a delegation to the ballot resolution meeting which took place in Geneva in February 2008 and subsequently requested that its technical committee carry out a review of its position on ISO/IEC DIS 29500.

The technical committee did so, made a consensus decision and advised BSI on its vote.

So, in the age of the Internet, of accountability, of consensus, nonetheless: “It is not BSI's policy to make public the details of how it votes on International Standards.” Sad, very sad, for a once-great institution to be afraid of the sunlight of openness in this way. Since, apparently, the BSI isn't willing to explain itself, I think it's time we requested John Pugh MP to start asking some more questions in Parliament....

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