Microsoft's Great Besmirching

by Glyn Moody

I have been covering Microsoft for over 25 years - I've even written a few books about Windows. During that time, I've developed a certain respect for a company that just doesn't give up, and whose ability to spin surpasses even that of politicians. To be sure, Microsoft has crossed the line several times, but it has always worked within the system, however much it has attempted to use it for its own ends. No more: in the course of trying to force OOXML through the ISO fast-track process, it has finally gone further and attacked the system itself; in the process it has destroyed the credibility of the ISO, with serious knock-on consequences for the whole concept of open standards.

Of course, all companies try to bend the rules in the their favour, and it would be unfair to pick on Microsoft for doing the same. But what has happened over the last year and a half goes so far beyond the accepted rough and tumble of the standards game that cumulatively it can only be considered as an all-out attack on the machinery of standards-making. Consider the evidence.

Things got off to a bad start back in 2007, just before the original vote on whether OOXML should become an ISO standard, when the following emerged:

Microsoft Corp. admitted Wednesday that an employee at its Swedish subsidiary offered monetary compensation to partners for voting in favor of the Office Open XML document format's approval as an ISO standard.

Shortly after OOXML failed the first time to obtain enough votes to become an ISO standard, Rob Weir pointed out something rather strange had happened. Now, Weir works for IBM, an ODF supporter, and might therefore be considered biased against OOXML, but what he presented were facts, not opinions. Examining the composition over time of the JTC1 committee that voted on OOXML, he saw that the so-called "P" members - the ones with the greatest clout - had grown very suddenly just a few weeks before the first vote:

We can look at this graphically as well, showing the P-member composition of JTC1 over time and how they ultimately voted. As you see, JTC1 was overwhelmingly against OOXML until the blip at the very end, when Kazakhstan, etc. joined.

This sudden influx of "P" members with little interest in the general business of refining and approving standards has already had a negative impact on the running of the ISO. Here's what Martin Bryan, the convenor of the ISO JTC1 workgroup had to say soon afterwards:

The influx of P members whose only interest is the fast-tracking of ECMA 376 [OOXML] as ISO 29500 has led to the failure of a number of key ballots. Though P members are required to vote, 50% of our current members, and some 66% of our new members, blatantly ignore this rule despite weekly email reminders and reminders on our website. As ISO require at least 50% of P members to vote before they start to count the votes we have had to reballot standards that should have been passed and completed their publication stages at Kyoto. This delay will mean that these standards will appear on the list of WG1 standards that have not been produced within the time limits set by ISO, despite our best efforts.

He concluded by warning:

The days of open standards development are fast disappearing. Instead we are getting “standardization by corporation”, something I have been fighting against for the 20 years I have served on ISO committees. I am glad to be retiring before the situation becomes impossible. I wish my colleagues every success for their future efforts, which I sincerely hope will not prove to be as wasted as I fear they could be.

The problems of trying to fast-track a specification of 6000 pages became clear at the February 2008 Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM), which was intended to resolve outstanding problems with the proposed standard so that it could be approved. As noted standards expert Andy Updegrove explained:

A rather incredible week in Geneva has just ended, bringing to a close the Herculean task assumed by the over 100 delegates from 32 countries that attended the BRM. That challenge, of course, was how to productively resolve the more than 1,100 comments (after elimination of duplicates) registered by the 87 National Bodies that voted last summer with respect to a specification that itself exceeded 6,000 pages.

His summary was as follows:

Only a very small percentage of the proposed dispositions were discussed in detail, amended and approved by the delegations in attendance at the BRM, indicating the inability of OOXML to be adequately addressed within the "Fast Track" process

One reason why OOXML was not "adequately addressed" was the following:

Acknowledging the impossibility of achieving the stated goal of a BRM (e.g, to carefully review each proposed disposition and reach consensus on an appropriate resolution), a proposal was made on Wednesday to approve all proposed resolutions in a single vote before the end of the BRM, thus nominally "resolving" each remaining proposed disposition without any discussion at all.

That is, around 900 proposed resolutions were nominally dealt with in a completely summary fashion - hardly appropriate for something aspiring to the condition of an international standard. Despite this glaring omission, the final vote on whether OOXML should be given fast-track approval went ahead, and it was at this point that Microsoft went into overdrive, using every means possible to get enough "yes" votes from the "P" members. Here's a selection of some of the more extraordinary goings-on around the world.

In New Zealand, Microsoft tried to cast aspersions on someone who had the temerity to oppose it, leading to this complaint from Standards New Zealand:

We have been forwarded your email of 12 March to [national computer society] relating to Matthew Holloway communications with the [national computer society].

Your email suggests that Matthew is “far from objective” that his goal “has always been to de-rail OOXML rather than making it a better specification” and that this “has clouded a lot of his thinking”.

Whilst you are entitled to your opinions, we do not share them. We are most concerned about your statement that “while his efforts have been appreciated by the Standards NZ people on the OOXML advisory group his attitude and disingenuous approach (especially with regard to reaching outside NZ to stir things up) have not gone down well”

Your statements imply that you are relaying the views of Standards New Zealand and we ask you rectify this misrepresentation immediately. We have found Matthew to be an extremely valuable member of our advisory group and believe that he has acted with integrity as an advisory group member.

It took a similar tack in India:

At the meeting held on 20th March 2008, we were informed that Microsoft has complained to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and to the apex office of the country about the constitution of the committee and also cast aspersions on the impartiality of the chairperson of LITD15, Mrs. Neeta Verma. The chairperson was furious and offered to step down from her post. She pointed out that the committee has met numerous times and Microsoft never brought this issue up in front of the committee nor did they check the facts with her or her organization before complaining to the apex office.

Elsewhere, it was more inventive. Doug Mahugh, a "Senior Product Manager at Microsoft specializing in Office client interoperability and the Open XML file formats", turned up at a meeting of one of Malaysia's technical committees brandishing a business card that proclaimed him a vice-president of the Malaysian arm of an international body called the IASA, and tried to use it to claim a place in the meeting. As one of the Malaysian members of that committee put it:

to pass off a foreigner as a Malaysian organisation's representative? That's really stretching it, dudes.

Other countries also saw the introduction of some remarkable procedural contortions to push through approval of OOXML in the face of opposition. In Germany, for example, the voting process was made so complicated that it was almost impossible to change from its original "yes" to "no"; here's just a small sample:

Since the vote of the working group was "yes", the steering committee could only vote on the question whether the report of the chairman of that group "is acknowledged with agreement" - a biased report which did not tell about the obvious problems at the BRM. This question had the sole purpose of requiring people to offend the chairman of the working group if they voted against OOXML (i.e. to vote "abstain" at ISO). Only IF you voted not to agree on that report (i.e. were willing to offend the chairman) were you eligible to vote "yes" to the next question, which asked whether there were severe deficiencies in the procedures. Even then, beause of the way the vote had been set up, severe deficiencies in procedure would still not be an adequate reason to change the vote of the working group from YES to NO, but only to a German ABSTAIN. This and strong pressure forced several people to change their vote after having cast their vote.

But my overall favourite has to be this:

Here's an article from Norway, and the translation of the title of the article is, "Scandal in Standards Norway. I didn't write that headline. They did. And here's why. The article says there should be an investigation of the irregularities there, because while there were only two votes to approve, from Microsoft and a business partner, Statoilhydro, and all the others voted no, 21 votes, they approved anyway.

So what have we got as a result of all these machinations? Well, assuming it's passed (it's still not clear, as I write), a standard that is so broken that even if anyone else tried to implement its 6000 pages, they couldn't. Which is precisely what Microsoft wants: OOXML will be an ISO standard that only one company is able to implement fully. But it's better than that. Microsoft doesn't even have to stick with its new "standard": it can simply change OOXML as it wishes, and submit it again to the ISO for approval as an updated "standard"; meanwhile, it can sell its "new and improved " OOXML that isn't exactly a standard, but soon will be, so why worry about the details?

In a sense, that's what Microsoft has been doing for the last decade anyway, with a de facto rather than de jure standard. So it won't change much, even if ODF's progress will be set back somewhat as momentum keeps Microsoft Office in use. But along the way, something terrible has happened: Microsoft has managed to besmirch the entire ISO process, which is now effectively worthless. Microsoft has shown that it knows how to get what it wants there, and will doubtless be applying that knowledge to further "standards" in the future. ISO has turned from being a kind of gold standard, into a worthless rubber stamp wielded at the behest of the rich and ruthless.

But is not only the ISO that Microsoft has sullied. It has also sullied itself, at a time when the perceived value of its brand is already plummeting. It may have been successful in somehow persuading various National Bodies to see its point of view, but it seems not to have noticed that something has changed from the good old days of meetings behind closed doors. In the age of the blog it is simply impossible to keep this stuff locked up. As the days and months go by, I predict that more and more and more details will emerge about what really happened. And then the real battle begins.

Leaving aside the intriguing idea that approving two, rival document standards may fall foul of the World Trade Organisation, there is also the interesting prospect of the EU getting interested. Some in Denmark have have already already complained to the EU about OOXML, and a posting from Poland claims that "the European Commission is currently investingating the Polish OOXML standarization process." And this is on top of an earlier statement from the European Commission that it would be examining "whether Microsoft's new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products." Microsoft may have won the ISO battle, but it could well end up losing the rather more important war with the European Commission, which has already shown itself deeply unimpressed with Microsoft's approach to business.

Writing to MEPs (if you're European) or to Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Competition, (if you're not) is one obvious action we can all take to press for an independent, transparent inquiry into possible irregularities during the OOXML voting process in Europe. But I think there's something just as important that we need to start doing immediately.

It is striking that some parts of Microsoft have been making soothing noises to the open source world, speaking of their desire to work alongside free software projects and to ensure "interoperability" - a favourite concept at the moment - between the open and closed worlds. Those voices have become increasingly seductive to some, especially in the open source business world, who would rather work with than against the Seattle behemoth, and who seem to believe that Microsoft is genuine in its offers. But if the whole sorry OOXML saga shows anything, it is Microsoft's deep and utter contempt for the whole idea of an open, collaborative process based on mutual respect and consensus. Henceforth, members of the open source community must view with deep cynicism all - not just some - offers by Microsoft to work more closely with the free software world. If they don't, they could find themselves used and abused just like the once famous, and now former, International Standards Organisation.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

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