Standards Organizations and the Neighborhood Bully

It doesn’t take much for Microsoft to make the news these days. Sometimes it’s good, many times it’s not good, and when open source is involved, it usually gets downright ugly.

But the latest scuffle involving Microsoft and open source raises a different set of questions. Last week, Microsoft’s bid to have its Office Open XML document format ratified as an ISO standard suffered a setback when the format failed the first round of voting.

We would venture to guess that the “no vote” came as a surprise to the software juggernaut — especially if the allegations of ballot stuffing and bullying prove true. According to Wired,the questionable tactics Microsoft is rumored to have put to use range from promising incentives to Swedish members to convincing “observing” ISO members to upgrade their status to “participating” so that they could vote.

Even though a Sci-Tech Today piece says ISO officials seem unfazed by the lobbying efforts, Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin told IT Business Edge recently that such tactics compromise the integrity of the standardization process.

If the ISO’s expedited work on the standard — which is reportedly 6,000 pages long — can be thrown out because a big company like Microsoft employs such tactics, what’s the point of any standardization process?

In this case, Zemlin says, it’s important to note that:

Only one side used those tricks — none of the evidence points to anyone else doing anything remotely similar, while the voting record speaks for itself (e.g., the P upgrades almost all voting as a block). Second, there were tricks played that did violate the rules — such as in Sweden, where the committee was packed, and where Microsoft admitted offering “marketing incentives” to offset the costs of joining the committee. And third, the rules that Microsoft is talking about staying within are based upon an assumption of good faith. It’s easy — as this experience shows — to nominally stay within those rules while abusing that good faith. A very sorry story all around, and very damaging to the integrity of the process.

It seems, however, that the tactics worked against Microsoft. Says Zemlin:

I’m aware of at least one National Body that might have voted “yes with comments” if they hadn’t felt abused. Going forward, there will be even more attention paid to how things proceed. A remarkable aspect of this experience is how the open source community, and others, have become energized at the grass roots level. Much of what went on here never would have been known without the actions of individuals to keep an eye on things, to funnel information to bloggers and journalists, and for bloggers to help spread the word. That level of attention, and those thousands of eyes, will continue to be trained on the process through to its conclusion, whatever that may be.

The next steps in the process mean that Microsoft’s proposed standard will get much more scrutiny than the company had planned, and it will require much more work on Microsoft’s part, according to Zemlin:

[T]he thousands of comments that have been submitted will have to be taken seriously, as they should. Ecma and Microsoft will have about four and a half months to propose comment by comment resolutions, which can range from, “agree,” to “disagree, and here’s why,” with various flavors in between (e.g., “we suggest doing this instead”). After that, the members of SC 34, a JTC1 committee, will have about six weeks to pore over and discuss the proposals (other members will be able to review them as well). From February 25 to 29, 2008Article Search, all of those who voted no and the members of SC 34 will be entitled and encouraged to attend the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in Geneva and attempt to go through all of the proposals and decide what to do about them — a huge and perhaps over-ambitious task.

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