OOXML and the future of open standards

The International Conference Centre in Geneva has just played host to a critical meeting of standards bodies, a group that Microsoft has been legitimately lobbying in the hope of getting its Office Open XML (OOXML) format ratified as a standard.

At the same time, the UK-based OpenForum Europe group hosted a complementary conference in the same building to discuss "Standards and the future of the internet". The focal interest of the conference was not the OOXML decision, but nevertheless, interest was inevitably diverted by events upstairs. OOXML, and the process by which it has reached its current impasse, is identified by many as a turning point in the debate about open standards.

OpenForum's conference featured keynote speeches from Vint Cerf, who is often dubbed "the father of the internet" for his role in developing ARPAnet, and shared the common concern that "the standardisation process has become distorted out of proprietary interests"; from Hakon Wien Lie, who shared a room with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, coincidently based in Geneva, and came up with the concept of Cascading Style Sheets, later becoming the chief technology officer of Opera Software, creator of the world's best selling web browser "because the others are given away free."; and from Andy Updegrove and Bob Sutor, who produce the most read standards blogs on the net, and are among the leading experts on the successes and failures of the standards process.

Gaming of the system

Interestingly, many of the delegates of the "other meeting" attended the keynotes and some presentations, presumably out of a common interest in the meaning and definition of "standards", but were the soul of discretion when it came to discussing events in the other place. The structure of the conference and the tone of its presentations was discursive, not didactic, and there was a genuine interest in finding resolutions to the issues that beset standards in the computing industry. Standards affect innovation, barriers to entry, interoperability and the neutrality of data, and are fundamental to the future of computing. Technology moves at speed and the idea that protocols, APIs and data formats are "trade secrets" can be viewed as regressive, and an impediment to the transmission of ideas.

Equally it is recognised that technical standards are evolutionary and should not be cast in stone. Hence, Cerf's observation that standards can only be considered open "if there is non-proprietary opportunity for interested parties to contribute to their evolution, and demonstration that independent implementations have been made and shown to interwork. Publishing of the specifications for protocols does not automatically confer openness."

There was a common feeling among those present at the conference that OOXML represents a crisis in the standards process, heightened by widespread allegations of "ballot stuffing", "bribery", and "gaming" of the system which have been detrimental to the reputation of the ISO. Inevitably, OpenForum's conference became in part a protest against the proposed adoption of what is perceived to be a proprietary standard, and in part a positive statement that the adoption of open standards is a necessity, and not just an option, for the future health of the computing industry. Either way, participants could not disguise their interest in the decisions being made upstairs.

Demonstrable interoperability

The rise of free and open source software has emphasised the fact that software is being commoditised further and further up the stack. Fifteen years ago most office documents were stored in WordPerfect's proprietary data format.

Since then the majority have been saved in the different formats produced by the various versions of Microsoft Office. By and large, competing products have had to resort to reverse engineering in order to read or write proprietary data formats. To that extent, the publication of OOXML as documentation of Microsoft's proprietary data formats has been welcomed by most of the interested parties, but as Cerf expressed it, "freedom from intellectual property restrictions, available open source versions, demonstrable interoperability of independently produced instances, and freedom to participate in further standards evolution all contribute to the power and utility of open standards. All of these ingredients need to be present for the real value of open standards to be realised," and open standards are a necessity if the true potential of computing environments is to be achieved. The concept of interoperability is meaningless without the underpinning of commonality provided by truly open and universal standards.

The need for an open standard that allows office data to be preserved in a neutral format has long been identified, and was achieved with the Open Document Format (ODF) which was devised under the auspices of the industry wide Oasis Consortium, with the participation of many interested parties, and was ratified as a standard by the ISO in May 2006. Microsoft declined to contribute to ODF.

Other "productivity suites" such as OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony have adopted ODF as their default data formats, and as a result governments have taken a direct interest in its implementation as a means of ensuring the longevity and neutrality of the millions of office documents they produce.

This phenomenon appears to have triggered Microsoft's interest in developing an alternative standard, tied specifically to Microsoft's existing data formats. The rising popularity of ODF ensured that OOXML would be fast-tracked through a process that would normally be subject to many months and years of analysis and refinement.

Rightly or wrongly, it has been perceived that Microsoft's primary objective has been to produce a validated "standard" that continues to protect its dominant market position, and goes some way to satisfying the demand by governments and others that data must be preserved in a standardised format. Hence, the rush to push OOXML through the standards bodies despite all its well recorded inconsistencies. Microsoft still has the opportunity to contribute to the evolution and development of the existing standard, but has declined to do so. There are still no fully working independent implementations of OOXML, and there has been little or no participation in the evolution of OOXML by third parties.

A declaration

Participants at the conference represented a wide range of companies and organisations from across the EU and further afield, and included senior representatives of Google, IBM, Oracle and others with a direct interest in the furtherance and maintenance of open standards, as well as academics and personalities such as Jeremy Allison, representing the Samba team, and Georg Greve of the Free Software Foundation Europe. But the main attraction was undoubtedly the presence of Vint Cerf, who began his presentation by asking those present to note that he wasn't using a slide presentation, and relating his famous quip: "Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."

He spoke about the evolution of standards in the context of the internet, and stressed that "among the properties most critical to the success of these standards has been the open process of their development and evolution, and the freedom with which the standards are accessible. That all the documents of the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), for example, have been available at no charge and online, has contributed to the adoption of internet standards developed through the IETF process, and to the ease with which any interested party could participate in further development."

Andy Updegrove and Bob Sutor spoke more directly about the potential effects of the OOXML decision, Updegrove repeating his call for "Civil ICT Standards". Hakon Lie recounted his personal history of the web, from his early days sharing an office at CERN with Tim Berners-Lee to Opera's recent antitrust complaint to the European Commission, which uniquely demands reparation in the form of compelling Microsoft "to give consumers a real choice and to support open web standards in Internet Explorer."

The conference concluded with a joint declaration from members of the European Open Community pledging to "maintain the openness and integrity of the Internet", and to work "to ensure that the role, definition, and application of Open Standards is not mitigated or limited by proprietary pressure. We believe it essential that these steps are matched by Government, through active support for such standards through appropriate frameworks, procurement policies and organisational remit."

Whatever the outcome might be for OOXML, many of the conference participants felt that both OOXML and the reputation of the standards process had been tainted by recent events. The future of ODF as the dominant standard for office documents remains optimistic, whatever the outcome of the ISO process.