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Shock! Horror! Man responsible for OOXML admits "failure"

Michael Brown   April 3 2010 07:12:56 PM
Alex Brown, the man who is largely responsible for the passing of Microsoft's OOXML "standard", IMHO, has just made an amazing blog post, in which he admits, in effect, that Microsoft used him.

Yep, it seems that since Microsoft got the coveted ISO stamp of approval, it's made pretty much zero attempts to fix all the problems in it like it promised to.  Really, Microsoft lied?  You could have knocked me down with a feather when I found out.

So shout it from the rooftops!  Whenever anybody, Microsoft or otherwise, bangs on about the standards support in Microsoft Office, you can plainly contradict them.  Microsoft does not support any standards, not even its own.  Not in Office 2007 and not, it appears, in Office 2010 either.

My own comment, which I've posted as response on Alex's site, is as follows:

Standardizers should be skeptical of corporations ... I think the view that reduces corporate disputes to some kind of soap opera with "goodies" and "baddies" is reductive and unintelligent

I appreciate that treating the likes of Microsoft with a Jeremy "why is this lying bastard lying to me?" Paxman approach is a luxury not available to a neutral body such as ISO. Even if that had been your thoughts at the time, you still had to treat all parties fairly and equally.  It's like how we vote for politicians based on what's in their manifestos, even though we know that they probably won't keep too many of their promises once they're in power.  (Just occasionally though, they do come through, e.g. Obama's Health Bill.)

By the same token, however, you didn't have to bend over backwards to help Microsoft get their standard approved either.  For surely, that is what you did.  Rather than following your own (very sound) advice to be "skeptical of corporations", you displayed an unbelievable naivety in trusting that Microsoft would make any serious attempt to fix its problems once the company had obtained the coveted ISO stamp of approval.

By any objective view of the text, as it existed at the time of the BRM, the standard should have failed.  Five days was never enough time to fix its mountain of problems.  Game over.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.  Fail.

But by splitting the standard into Transitional and Strict versions, the BRM found a way, perhaps the only way, of getting it through.  You also proposed the "all or nothing" vote, when it became clear that there was not enough time to discuss all the NB's issues on an individual basis.  Did ISO rules require you to come up with this?  I think that they did not.  You appear to have interpreted your role as to find the best way to get the standard passed, come whatever.  That was *your* choice and ultimately it was your failure.

1Rick Jelliffe  04/07/2010 12:00:44 AM  Shock! Horror! No he didn’t!

But Alex admitted no such thing.

The idea that at SC34 we somehow based our decisions on trust in MS is ludicrous. I suppose after people have found they cannot support allegations of corruption, or technical incompetence, then they give naivity a burl. Anything but admit that reasonable people can reasonably have different views and strategies.

To get a better idea of what my (and I think Alex is not too far from this, though he can speak for himself) view actually was, see

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For example:

"The analogy I have used before is that we have to be like bear trappers: when the bear walks into the trap, they have to do so voluntarily because of some honey, but when they are inside you don't throw them out of the cage merely because you decide they are too smelly for you. If we want to wait around until Microsoft and IBM are pure as the driven snow, or until there are no SNAFUs or idiots involved anywhere, then we will wait forever. Participation in standards work is not predicated on trust. Indeed, in standardization you perhaps really want to get arch competitors agreeing more than back-scratching cartel-buddies."


"After a decade and a half in standards work, I know and accept that the big companies blow hot and cold on standards bodies. (This is my “trap the bear when it is in the cage” argument.) They jump ship to the bodies that will give them the best result, they try to convince people that they jumped ship because the ship was rotten and not because they were rats, and they implement a standard only as far as it fits in with their development/marketing cycle, which often means minor version changes are not implemented, or that there can be periods of stagnation. Even the largest companies find it hard to stay on standards committees when they know they have no intention to implement that standards or its updates. "

I suppose it is funny: I suspect the people who swallow the "they are being naively used" line of being rather naive themselves. But talking through the issues with a modicom of civility is the only way forward (at least, at a standards organization); and for that, all the parties need to be at the table.

P.S. Alex was not "largely responsible". He chaired one large and difficult meeting, with assistance from officials from ISO and IEC at his side to discuss procedural issues. The full JTC1 plenary (of National Bodies) later confirmed that the meeting had been run strictly in order. All key decisions about how the meeting was conducted was voted on at the meeting and agreed by the delegations, Alex didn't just pull decisions about the scope of the meeting or its conduct out of his hat. (I was there, btw.) I think there would have been similar results regardless of who chaired the meeting.

OOXML was voted a standard because about 75% of National Bodies voted in favour, and only about 14% voted against IIRC.

2Michael Brown  04/07/2010 2:40:27 AM  Shock! Horror! Man responsible for OOXML admits "failure"


First off, I'm flattered that you should take the time to travel out to this backwater of the Blogosphere to say "hello"!

Personally, I've never accused Alex or you or anybody else involved at the BRM of "corruption", so I'm off the hook on that score. Naiviety is all I had left to understand the decision taken there... oh, apart from collective insanity, of course!

So, if not naive then what? You said that did not base your decisions on trust in Microsoft. That's fine. So are you now saying that you took those decisions in the knowledge that Microsoft probably wouldn't play ball once they got their ISO stamp of approval? Sorry, but to an outsider, that makes even less sense than naivety.


- Mike

3Rick Jelliffe  04/07/2010 3:45:13 AM  Shock! Horror! Man responsible for OOXML admits failure

Hi. I am sure there were as many different reasons as there were "Yes" votes, ranging from my view (that the drivers for ODF and OOXML were different, and that OOXML standardization would not jeopardize ODF even in the short term, that ODF was somewhat immature and over-sold but would catch up, and that we should grab the bear before it ran away again) to people who thought that ODF was an irrelevant side-show in the market, to people who thought that ODF would be strengthened by the release of information that came with OOXML. There were some people who may have seen MS's involvement in standards as a comical "stop me before I hurt again" moment, where the engagement faction at MS temporarily had ascendency over the pathological trade-secrets lovers.

However, companies only play ball as much as it is in their perceived interest. MS took the strategy of "opening their outside so they wouldn't have to open their inside": open standards are less unpalatable than open source for them.

So there always was a significant risk that Microsoft would, if the govt pressure that made them go to open standards in the first place wained, either go slow or stall adoption of the bits of the OOXML standard that came from outside requests. You could see their behaviour at W3C in several cases; but they are no different from other big companies (IBM, Snoracle, etc) in this: SC34 was largely founded by IBM-ers, now some IBMs are very negative about it, and in a decade's time they will think it is great again. That is what they all do: don't be sucked in by their hype.

But if MS didn't implement, so what? From the standards POV, we had an agreement on OOXML that was not what MS wanted but obviously close enough for them to implement, and not what many NBs would want exactly but close enough to want on the books.

There was no unfairness or ganging up on them that they can blame; if after a process which has even come to court based on hysteria (e.g. the laughable UK suit against BSI which the judge threw out as being without foundation) MS will not implement ISO OOXML Strict, that makes the nature of their standards participation very clear, and provides an objective basis for procurement decisions.

Which is why you go into a standards process: it stops being issues of "They stink because Bill write this memo 15 years ago" to "This product does not conform to the standard that the international community negotiated with Microsoft/Ecma for, therefore we will not use it." Objective reasons that can actually be used by procurement departments and which are not discriminatory.

Standards are a double-edged sword. Once your technology is on the books, your own products can get judged by them too.

(I should be clearer here: there seems to be no opposition from MS on cosmetic syntactic changes to the XML formats. And many of the changes, such as removing VML, were part of their long term plans anyway. At the BRM I was one of the few voices who pointed out that more adventurous National Bodies got in their demands, the more the risk of that MS would pull out: that would not be a bad thing in itself where that change was important to the NB, but not for gratuitous, vexatious or provocative changes.)