May 1, 2008 1:11 PM PDT

U.K. standards body taken to court over OOXML

The British Standards Institution has been taken to court by a group of Unix users in an attempt to get the standards body to recant its approval of Microsoft's Office Open XML document format.

The UK Unix & Open Systems User Group said on Thursday that the British Standards Institution's controversial decision to vote for approval of OOXML in a recent International Organization for Standardization ballot followed a flawed decision-making process.

The UKUUG is also folding in many other complaints about Office Open XML (OOXML), such as unresolved patent issues and a lack of completion in the specification's documentation, and is calling for the High Court of Justice to force a judicial review of the BSI's decision. The UKUUG is hoping a judicial review would find the BSI decision to be flawed and reverse it.

OOXML is Microsoft's answer to the OpenDocument Format (ODF), an established ISO standard based entirely on open specifications. OOXML is also theoretically open, but central to the UKUUG's legal action is ISO's fast-tracking of the format into standardization without properly addressing its many unresolved technical flaws--an issue exacerbated by OOXML's extraordinary length as a specification, at 6,000 pages.

Following a highly contentious vote among national standards bodies, ISO announced on April 2 that OOXML was to become an official standard. There is, however, a two-month window following that date, during which the process can be derailed if one of the national standards bodies makes a formal appeal.

Serious objections have been raised within the decision-making community about the approval vote--notably in Norway, by the head of that country's technical committee--but none yet has come officially from any country's national standards body.

The UKUUG has been in existence for 32 years and is, according to Mark Taylor, the head of the Open Source Consortium (OSC), a "venerable organization of men with long grey beards."

"It is a testament to the feeling of injustice here," he told ZDNet UK on Thursday. "This is the first time they've done something like this."

Speaking to ZDNet UK on Thursday, UKUUG head Alain Williams said his group's objection was that ISO and the BSI were "trying to put forward something that is not fit for purpose."

"Microsoft is trying to game the standards process because they don't want a standard that can be implemented by other people," he said. "If they had wanted that, they could have gone with the ODF format (but), if they adopt something like that, they begin to lose their stranglehold on the desktop."

"Something that had that high a level of contention is not suitable for fast-tracking," Williams added.

Williams claimed the official backing of OOXML would harm not only the UK IT industry, by virtue of perpetuating Microsoft's "monopoly," but the country as a whole by not using an open standard that is guaranteed to be usable into the distant future. "If you're talking about reading documents in one or two hundred years' time, you would have great problems in doing it (with documents based on OOXML)," he said.

The OSC's Taylor told ZDNet UK that the UKUUG's action carried with it "prima facie evidence that the BSI's processes have not been complied with or done in a very strange way."

"A lot of us believe there are questions to be answered," said Taylor. "The remedy that is being sought is a mandatory order to withdraw the BSI's vote approving (OOXML). The BSI hasn't followed its own processes. For example, the (claim) that it was unanimously decided to pass (OOXML)--it wasn't. People will be called as witnesses to show there are serious problems with the BSI's processes."

Taylor, however, did not express confidence in the ability of the action--if successful--to reverse the ISO vote without similar actions being launched in other countries. "I don't believe the BSI on its own would be sufficient to pull the vote back, but it would certainly make a dent in it," he said. "Should there be others, it would certainly change the percentages (in the ISO tally)."

The BSI had not commented on the UKUUG's legal action at the time of writing.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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13 comments

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I'm as disgusted as anyone by the political maneuvering that got this standard approved despite major unresolved technical flaws. On the other hand, standards just aren't that important. People will use what they want.
Posted by alflanagan (115 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Standards are important, crcially important
Before making a statement such as "standards are not that important", you should realize and clarify that there are two kinds of standards:

- de jure
- de facto

Additionally, when you say "people" you have to make at least the distinction between corporate, corporate and home users.

-RFH
Posted by RamonFHerrera (38 comments )
Link Flag
Oh, Really!
"On the other hand, standards just aren't that important. People will use what they want". Tell us that you are kidding please; or, that the airline company that you own have "deeper pockets" than those dudes in those "Middle Eastern" countries.
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Link Flag
Technical flaws? Where?
After pounding around inside OOXML for 12 months (during it's finalization stages) I could find nothing wrong with it. Granted, it doesn't have everything in it that everyone might want, but I could find no flaws in it. However, I can find more flaws in S1000D, ATA iSpec 2200, and other "so called" standards than I could ever find in the OOXML design. And yeah, I used to work for MS, but now I'm a contractor working for Boeing on S1000D, ATA iSpec2200, .NET, SGML, etc. I'd gladly take on OOXML, but it won't work for what we're trying to do here. Standards are to help DEFINE something that EVERYONE can use and give them a starting point for solving a problem across corporate, international, or political boundaries. Since 99 percent of the people in the world don't really give a flying rip about standards at their personal level, it's a moot point. Standards are just an attempt at keeping everyone on the same page in the book and forcing users of the standard to try and comply with the rules so data can move from point A to point B with some degree of confidence.
Posted by S1000D_Me (4 comments )
Link Flag
Good one
I am glad that someone is actually doing something about this.

It needs to be looked at to see if the system was flawed or rigged.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not rigged.
It's actually VERY easy to see the inner workings of OOXML. If you have access to Word 2007, create a file in it. Stuff as much formatting, graphics, fonts, anything you can find, into it. THEN, change the file name from .docx to .zip. Yep, .zip. Why, because docx is nothing more than a zip file with XML files in it in a folder structure you can very easily navigate. Unlike previous versions of Word, where if a bit becomes corrupt, you will likely lose the entire document. With docx, change the docx to zip, open the file and look for the bad bit and twiddle it yourself. Oddly enough, it's not that hard to find bad data in the docx format - once it's XML instead of the docx zipped file. And, once you get in there, the ENTIRE feature set of Word is available to you. THAT is what freaked me out when I worked on documenting it. Nothing is hidden. I could actually create a software package tomorrow and compete against MS Word AND freely use the OOXML file format. Honest. Look it up. I wrote a fair majority of the early content on the subject in the Office Resource Kit for Office 2007. Take a look and enjoy the freedom that MS has given the most lowely of users to plug around inside the inner workings of the file format.
Posted by S1000D_Me (4 comments )
Link Flag
Standards are important, crucially important
I meant to discern among three basic classes of users: corporate, government and home.

Standards are mandatory in governments. Government users are the largest group in many countries (not in the USA, though). Many corporation do business with governments, thus affecting their own use -or lack of- of standards.

and so on...

-RFH
Posted by RamonFHerrera (38 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: "Microsoft is trying to game the standards process...
... because they don't want a standard that can be implemented by other people," he said. "If they had wanted that, they could have gone with the ODF format (but), if they adopt something like that, they begin to lose their stranglehold on the desktop." Microsoft can still maintain a compelling interest in the "desktop market place" by delivering on IBM's OS/2 in the most desirable way this time around. Besides, what if they are taken before the "European Competition Commission" for there behaviour with regards to the OS/2 Operating System "which was once regarded to have been a "better" Operating System "than" Windows by none other than Bill Gates himself". :-$

Hey, we are talking here about "standards" - are we not! ;-)
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Good news
It is good news that this process is being challenged legally to see
whether or not it is flawed. Europe wants proper and truly open
standards - not proprietary, monopolist strangleholds.
Posted by Newspeak finder (79 comments )
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MS must be of satanic origin
Honestly, folks. Are 80,000 employees of the MS corporation truly working as satan's emmissaries? I think not. And, as a past MS employee, I'm beginning to take offense to the pat answer that, "Microsoft is bad". Get a grip. They're trying to protect their position - sure - but for the first time, Bill offers an olive branch with OOXML and everyone chooses to urinate on it. Before you speak with an armchair attitude about OOXML - pick up the spec and take a read. But I'll save you some time. Check out the Metro file format - available from MS website. Or, look in the Office 2007 Resource Kit and check out some of the documentation on the file format. I don't think they're muscling in on anyone elses turf. The guys in the trenches who built OOXML truly did try to do it right. You'd be surprised the beating they took within MS to make it happen. AND, as far as I can tell, with my 25 years in the computer business, they did a great job. Honestly, before you put finger to key and disparage the efforts of the first team at MS to crank something out that was TRULY intended to be open to EVERYONE, pick up the spec, read the material at the MS web site. THEN - if you've got something concrete to gripe about - LET MS KNOW. They really do want to know what you think of it - and they've provided plenty of places to rant and rave (if that's your preferred approach). But, believe it or not, if you send something in, that makes a good case for inclusion or change in this format, they really will take a good hard look at it.
Posted by S1000D_Me (4 comments )
Link Flag
Oh my, the end of the world is near!
Speaking as an expert in both RTF, S1000D, ATA iSpec2200, Metro file format (what Microsoft used as the starting point for designing OOXML), and various other "file formats", I'd like to tell the 'idiots' who are jumping up and down and making threats that "the entire IT community will fall apart" because Microsoft is getting the world to take a good hard look at OOXML - okay, everyone of you doom-sayers are you listening? GROW UP! Take a look at S1000D, it's got a long way to go before it finally becomes a solid, well defined methodology. At over 3,000 pages for it's nightmare from hell documentation, it still has boatloads of issues. Maybe Microsoft, with it's 6,000 pages of documentation, did a better job than the folks who generated the ATAiSpec 2200. I'm sure they did a better job than the folks who wrote the S1000D spec (yeah, what do you expect when the majority of writers of the spec wrote the thing in English and they speak another language). S1000D is great, but it's not a standard like OOXML. Uh, wrong. It's for documenting some pretty intense stuff. Word is just for "getting thoughts on paper, making it pretty, and trying to implement control if a person wants to implement higher level features." Yep, big, bulky, more powerful than most folks will ever take advantage of, but WOW, what you can do with it if you open up VBA and take a look under the covers. Are you afraid .NET and OOXML will take over your little nitch? Shame on you. Don't get in the way of other people who'd like to see Microsoft under SOME degree of development control. I'd love to see a CPF like process for getting changes into OOXML. Don't screw it up for the rest of us.

For starters, I know Microsoft did a better job putting OOXML together than many of the standards that are out there - why - because I was the first person to write the documentation for public consumption on the MS websites. I had to dig through the spec, work with the developers, and try to make heads and tails out of what I was seeing. Compared to S1000D, it's a masterpiece. It's not perfect, but it sure as heck is better than RTF (the native format used internally by Word). But, if you want to protect your little fiefdom, go ahead and gripe. I've been working in XML for many years (SGML too by the way). There are pros and cons to everything. So what. Is it worth what you're doing? I think not. Let the world RECOGNIZE OOXML as a standard. It will help it grow. Many eyes will find the faults - which is expected - and because it's intended to be a spec, MS will make the necessary changes to make it better. Look at S1000D. Have you seen the number of CPFs in the queue? Change is inevitable - and it's usually for the better. Standing in the way of it only makes YOU look bad. So get a grip and get out of our way.
Posted by S1000D_Me (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nonsense
The problem with OOXML, in its current form (however well written), is that it essentially supports and extends Microsoft's own proprietary (and heavily patented) legacy document formats. While that is not much of a problem for Microsoft, it is a problem for any software company that would like to support the OOXML standard in their own products.

The very idea that only one company can produce a product that fully implements a given standard means that the standard....well, isn't much of a standard.

We should all encourage Microsoft to fully support the existing ISO digital document standard, in addition to their own proprietary standard, so that users of any brand software can exchange documents with users of their products. This is especially important as the world moves to OS agnostic, web based computing.
Posted by Arbalest05 (83 comments )
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