Open Enterprise: Standardization troubles

As of this week, there's a new participant in the process of standardizing the OpenDocument office file format: Say hello to Microsoft.

No, Redmond hasn't done an about-face. You still won't be seeing an OpenDocument filter added to Microsoft Office. This latest move takes place strictly behind the scenes.

Without fanfare, Microsoft has joined INCITS V1, a subgroup of the International Committee for Information Technology Standards that's responsible for "Text Processing: Office and Publishing Systems Interface." To make a long story short, this is the group that will steer OpenDocument through the process of becoming a formal ISO standard.

Instantly the alarm bells rang. "There sits Microsoft, waiting, like a spider," blogged Groklaw's Pamela Jones; the obvious assumption being that Microsoft is planning to subvert the OpenDocument standardization process through some kind of procedural filibuster.

For its part, Microsoft says this isn't the case, insisting that it is interested only in shepherding its own file formats through the standardization process. Remember, Microsoft has based the default file format for Office 12 on XML, and it wants its new XML format to become an ISO standard. That means that it, too, must pass through INCITS V1. Still, it's hard to believe that the participation of OpenDocument's most staunch opponent in a key standards committee will have no impact on the format.

Comparing Microsoft to a spider, however, is probably a bad analogy. Rather, arriving at standards is more like ordering a pizza for the whole family. Microsoft is that second cousin who loves pineapple, is allergic to cheese, and will only eat a pizza with pepperoni if it doesn't have tomato sauce.

Like it or not, Microsoft will have its say. But that's what it means to arrive at a standard. In fact, it's entirely possible that there will be other dissenting voices, too.

This is bound to be frustrating to some of OpenDocument's more staunch supporters. Open source is occasionally derided as stemming from "communist" ideas, but the mode of governance of most open source projects is much more straightforward than that label implies. It's what allows them to be so agile. Everyone gets his or her say, but just a few key figures make the final decisions -- Linus Torvalds and his lieutenants, for example. In this sense, open source projects are not communist, but rather quintessential examples of American-style representative democracy.

By comparison, the process of drafting a formal open standard works more like Canada -- with all the bureaucratic formality that implies.

Does this mean it's probably going to be a while before OpenDocument becomes an ISO standard? Yes, probably.

Could a lengthy standardization process influence enterprise users to stick with the traditional Microsoft Office file format for the time being? Yes, probably.

Does this mean that hope for an alternative office document format is fading fast? Is OpenDocument a lost cause? I say no, not at all.

Nobody said it was going to be easy. Good standards aren't pulled from a hat. Good standards take time because they're meant to stand the test of time. Microsoft's office document formats have not done that and there's little evidence that future standards strong-armed into existence by Microsoft will, either. That's why we needed a true standard in the first place, and it's why the process of standardization must continue in a fair and non-discriminatory way -- even with Microsoft at the table. Anything less would be hypocrisy.

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