Get Microsoft vote in perspective, says ISO chief

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The head of international standards body ISO has rejected accusations that a shambolic and manipulated process led to the controversial approval of a Microsoft document format that is now under review.

A worker fixes a spotlight at the Microsoft exhibit of the CeBIT fair in Hanover March 3, 2008. The head of international standards body ISO has rejected accusations that a shambolic and manipulated process led to the controversial approval of a Microsoft document format that is now under review. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/Files

A majority of the more than 100 national standards bodies entitled to vote approved Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) word-processing and spreadsheet format in March but that decision is now on hold pending the results of four appeals.

ISO Secretary-General Alan Bryden told Reuters the uproar that erupted over the voting process was largely due to a poor understanding of the way that ISO works, usually out of the public eye, to produce standards for products ranging from freight containers to food.

Bryden, together with the general secretary of the International Electrotechnical Commission, has until the end of the month to decide whether to process the appeals from Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela further.

Critics say OOXML, whose code runs to more than 6,000 pages, is too complex to be translated into the rival open-source ODF format, and say delegates to a week-long ISO ballot resolution meeting in February had no chance to address relevant issues.

Microsoft’s bid to gain ISO approval for OOXML has stirred up strong feelings particularly among advocates of open-source software which can be freely modified, especially given Microsoft’s spotty record on anti-competitive practices.

Critics say there is no need for a second international document format in addition to the open-source ODF, and some fear that Microsoft could use an ISO stamp of approval to ensnare users and commit them to its other products.

“Some of the negative publicity is quite extreme,” Bryden said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

“It’s not exactly pleasant for me to see ISO vilified, particularly when much of the extreme criticism is based on false assumptions and a lack of understanding of what ISO is and how it works.”

Bryden said criticisms that a fast-track process was abused to rush through the Microsoft standard were unfounded, and said the process was not new but had been used for 267 standards over the last 20 years, 212 of which were still current.

Still, he said there were lessons to learn. “The experience with ISO/IEC 29500, along with the results of other standards development activities, will indeed assist in determining whether further continued improvements should be made.”


People close to the ballot resolution meeting that ISO held behind closed doors in February had described to Reuters an event bogged down by bureaucracy that descended into near chaos as delegates struggled with more than 1,000 points of order.

“The sheer amount of publicity does serve to illustrate a growing realisation that international standards are important,” said Bryden, but added: “The concentration on ISO/IEC 29500 also needs to be put into context.”

“ISO publishes almost 100 new or revised standards every month, not just on information technology, but for just about every sector of business and technology, without generating the reactions like those related to OOXML.”

Winning ISO approval would help Microsoft gain the confidence of public-sector bodies, many of whom are nervous of committing their archives to a proprietary format.

Bryden said that although as a rule it was preferable to have a single, global standard, it was normal for more than one standard to co-exist at times in the fast-moving world of IT.

“In such cases, multiple standards can exist and it is the market that eventually decides which will survive,” he said.

Bryden said he believed ISO would only emerge stronger from the controversy, which was not the first in ISO’s history.

“Irrespective of the outcome of the current appeals, we are confident that the robustness of the system will again lead to the answer the market place wishes to see and, in fact, reinforce ISO’s credibility,” he said.