Document formats seem like a technical, unimportant subject until you cannot open an important document. The role that standards play in making things work is easily overlooked. But South Africa's standards body is working to ensure that documents are usable, that software does inter-operate, and it is taking a global lead.
In April 2008 the Microsoft Office Open XML digital document format was ratified by a committee of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). The standard approval was fast-tracked through the ISO process but it has since been found that due process was not followed in this regard and that several vital ISO procedures were bypassed. For this reason the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) believes that there is cause to appeal the decision by ISO and is expected to be joined in the process of doing so by other international standards' bodies.
OOXML was introduced as a second open document format. Open Document Format (ODF) precedes OOXML by years and has the same design objective.
The Shuttleworth Foundation believes that introducing complexity into the standards market is unnecessary and threatens open access to information. This impacts negatively on education and citizen access to government services.
Andrew Rens, intellectual property fellow to the Shuttleworth Foundation believes that the SABS has a strong case for appeal.
"Microsoft's OOXML was submitted to ISO as a relatively immature standard," he explains. "As such, several international bodies expressed concerns and lodged contradictions to the standard for consideration in the ratification process."
"ISO's policies state that contradictions must be dealt with in the process before any standard can be passed. ECMA, the body that Microsoft handed the standard over to in running the approval campaign, was afforded the opportunity to respond to international contradictions.
However, it provided no response and it was merely ruled that these concerns would no longer be discussed. This is against ISO procedures," continues Rens.
"In total there were 1027 responses lodged with ECMA and instead of handling these individually, representatives were asked to block vote, ultimately ignoring all of the issues. This is against the ISO process which aims to resolve all issues surrounding a standard on an individual basis, allowing engineers and other developers to make the necessary changes ahead of ratification."
Rens insists that these contraventions of ISO process stem from the fact that OOXML was submitted as an immature standard.
"The reason why block voting and other side-stepping of ISO processes took place is because OOXML was fast-tracked through the process," he explains. "However, OOXML was not a suitable candidate for fast-tracking given the immaturity of the standard. Microsoft itself has said that it will not be able to fully integrate OOXML in the ISO form of the standard until 2011. It is simply a broken standard at this stage.
Fast-tracking through ISO is reserved for mature standards where no issues have been raised and where it is possible to hasten the process of rubber-stamping the standard. In OOXML's case, however, the standard had not been fully developed and there were many concerns raised internationally. This would preclude certification of the standard via a fast-track process."
"The fact that OOXML was fast-tracked, and certified, casts serious doubt on the integrity of ISO as an international standard's authority," adds Rens.
As such, the SABS is the first international body to seek appeal in the case and has begun a process that will lead to other international bodies joining in the appeal.
"Should the appeal be successful, OOXML will be rejected as an ISO standard and will have to be resubmitted, if there is still interest in it," states Rens. "Hopefully if it is resubmitted ISO will follow due process in a second attempt at certification. However, from an open access perspective we would prefer not to see the standard being reintroduced at all, because that would result in two document standards instead of one with resulting loss of interoperability."
"The Shuttleworth Foundation opposes the introduction of multiple standards for the same objective and, as such, approves of the SABS' decision in this regard. We agree that there is a case for appeal and wish all international bodies involving themselves in the process success in this undertaking," he concludes.