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ISO Denies OOXML Appeal

Back in the heat of the democratic presidential primary race, I used to joke that newly-minted front runner Barack Obama was running against the reanimated zombie corpse of Hillary Clinton. For months, it seemed, Obama would score an emphatic victory, only to give Clinton new life a week or so later with a sub-par result. Obama's failure to close out Clinton helped produce an unnecessary, months-long chase that nearly destroyed both candidates.

The lesson is simple: Let a candidate or an issue or a problem linger long enough, and it will take on a life of its own and strangle you, like something out of a Sam Raimi movie.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has apparently decided not to make that mistake.

Back in April, the Office Open XML (OOXML) file format specification earned enough votes to gain ratification as an ISO standard. Four nations -- Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela -- later filed appeals alleging flaws in the process. Under the ISO process, OOXML was set aside while the appeals were reviewed. Now it appears the ISO is recommending that those appeals be denied.

Industry watcher Andy Updegrove, who blogs extensively about technology standards issues at and co-founded the Digital Standards Organization, last week obtained a letter indicating the group's recommendation. He says the decision to ignore the valid complaints of member companies exacerbates a process that had been overwhelmed by the high-stakes OOXML effort.

"What we have seen is that the system really isn't that healthy when it comes to a hotly contested standards war. When that happens, rules and processes that may work well in a collegial environment can break down badly," Updegrove said in an e-mail exchange. "In my view, though, it goes deeper than this, however, in that I think that some of the judgments made by ISO in managing the process were terrible -- such as scheduling a one week Ballot Resolution Meeting to resolve 1200 issues."

The problem, Updegrove said, is that the ISO directives provide no mechanism for appealing ISO judgments. And Updegrove, for one, believes the ISO likes it that way.

"What I think you see here is a portrait of a comfortable management that has made some terrible calls, and yet is protected by rules that make them almost immune from being called to task," he complained. "Hundreds, if not thousands, of standards professionals around the world have been put through the wringer during this process, and those that have gone through the domestic heat to file appeals are now being told that their job is simply to take whatever they are told to do, no matter how ill-considered those requirements may be."

All that may well be true. But I think there may be another, more existential reason for the ISO's recommendation. The organization did not want to create the reanimated zombie corpse of the OOXML standards fight. The first go-around was bad enough.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 07/15/2008

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