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Whose Standard Is It, Anyway?

We told you last week that Microsoft is talking a lot about document format interoperability these days and that part of what it's trying to do in order to be -- or at least seem -- more open is have its document format, Office Open XML, accepted as a standard by the ISO (and, perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. delegation to the ISO seems to be on board with the idea). Well, one paragraph in last week's entry on this subject prompted an insightful e-mail from Bryan, who writes:

"One paragraph in today's newsletter caused me to chuckle, but not in a 'ha ha, that's funny' way. More of a, 'He's kidding, right?' kind of way.

"You said: 'Incidentally, Open XML is already a standard, having been accepted as such in, of all places, Europe, by the ECMA International standards body. That means that ECMA actually "owns" the format now and that future evolution of it is in ECMA's hands, not in Microsoft's. If the ISO accepts Open XML, it'll own the format.'

"I'm not going to get into the numerous conspiracy theories about ECMA (though they sometimes make amusing reading). The 'funny' part is the idea that either of the standards bodies could ever 'own' this particular standard. Let's face it: The standard, as written by Microsoft, is so deeply and fundamentally linked into the base design and operation of Microsoft Word that it will always be at the mercy of the proprietary product. The idea that ISO or ECMA could drive the future of Word is ludicrous.

"Once the standard is approved, it will have to follow the direction Microsoft leads. That doesn't really sound like ownership to me. Well, maybe ownership the other way around but certainly not ownership by the standards bodies. Changes to the standard may require fundamental changes to the way Word works, and that would be resisted vigorously by Microsoft. And if the methods in the standard can't change, then Microsoft still owns it...

"I still think this standard, as currently written, is bad for IT. The links and dependencies on the proprietary product are far too extensive."

First of all, we should have noted, and didn't, that the paragraph above from last Thursday's RCPU should have been attributed to Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards. It was Robertson who explained at an event in Cambridge, Mass. last week how the whole standards thing is supposed to work, and we got that paragraph from his explanation.

Beyond that, RCPU is playing off-position a little bit in writing about standards, as we're not really experts on the subject. However, we're guessing that you're probably fairly well on-target with what you're saying, Bryan, and, as we said last week, we suspect that one of the reasons that Microsoft is so determined to get ISO approval for Open XML is so that it can pull the rug out from under open source. We can hear the pitch now: "Open source is standards-based? Well, so are we! Look, we have ISO approval! So, there's no advantage in going with open source as far as that goes..."

Of course, if that were to happen, it might not be the worst result for Microsoft partners...even if it wouldn't be the best result for IT as a whole.

Have another comment on Microsoft's talk about standards and openness? Make it at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on March 11, 2008 at 11:54 AM