Open like a re-gagged mouth

By Rick Jelliffe
March 4, 2009 | Comments: 2

Initial title: Open like a gagged mouth.
Title then updated to: Open like a un-gagged mouth.

ODF 1.3?

At the OASIS ODF Technical Committee archives you can see the current items people have sent in for "ODF Next-Gen" (i.e. ODF 1.3) in the last fortnight.

The window for these requests is open for another month and half. I have made three requests so far, using the appropriate form: for CJK Tables (I have blogged on this), for CJK Text Grid Enhancements, and for better support for Markup Compatibility and Extensibility.

ODF 1.2

Meanwhile, something interesting has come out on the ODF comments list.

It seems that OASIS rules actually ban Technical Committee members from participating on the comments list with non-committee members. Communication is a one-way affair, an offering to silent gods.

Now this may seem incredible to you. Surely OASIS is the open organization? Well, in this regard it isn't: "The purpose of the TC's public comment facility is to receive comments from the public and is not for public discussion."

[Update: however they can still participate in other forums: see the recent welcome clarification]
[Update: I have now confirmed that the registration page for the appropriate public forum, now has the appropriate checkbox,to be functional.]

[Further Update: Now an edict from OASIS' Mary McRae changes things again: it seems that we are not in fact allowed to use the opendocument-users group. So everyone will go back to the office-comment list, where TC members are not supposed to post (except I see some still are, which is very sensible.)]

It didn't used to be this way. And snooping around the archives, it seems that when the rules were changed (by the then OASIS board) in 2003, there was quite a stink. The justification was to prevent spam: I cannot quite understand the logic, but the effect is that it meant if you want to participate at OASIS you have to pay.

Here are some quotes from various chairs of Technical Committees at the time (with Sun and IBM experts prominent among them):

Jon Bosak: "Actually, the intent of the comment lists *was* to provide a forum for public discussion. It's a feature of the OASIS process that I've pointed to with pride in presentations to thousands of people over the last couple of years. Guess I'll have to stop doing that. -- Jon

Ram Kumar: I 100% agree with Jon. It *was* indeed a great tool for public discusson. I always advised the public whoever I came across to use the comments list. No other standard body (if I can recollect) had this feature.

Lauren Wood: I can understand not wanting full discussions, but we often do need clarifying discussions to know what the comment provider really meant. And I'd rather not have that take place in private email.

Drummond Reed: I agree with Lauren. At least a limited form of public discussion seems
like a valuable portion of what OASIS provides.

Rich Thomson: One could always argue that the chair can forward the comment with a reply to the TC mail list rather than a private response. I was more concerned that this takes what was an open communication (posting to an email list) and turns it into a private communication (email to the chair). This seems to go against the open nature of OASIS.

Heather Kreger: Whats the purpose of excluding any public discussion for TC's? Having a public an TC private list is fairly common practice in other organizations I've been involved in (W3C, JCP) and it was appreciated.

Robert Phillpot: From the SSTC perspective, I'm not extremely concerned about the change. I do worry a bit about not being able to ask follow-up questions without engaging in private email exchanges that should probably be kept public. But the SAML -comment list receives very little traffic, and we would just deal with it as necessary. When it has been used in SSTC, there have been occasional follow-up mail messages to the list to clarify, etc.


And here is a key question and response:

Drummond Reed: Rich framed the question much better than I. Dropping active public comment lists appears to be a step down in openness. That's generally not a good thing. Are there particular reasons driving the change?

Karl Best: Yes, there have been TCs who have conducted technical discussions on the comment lists. Under the guise of getting technical input from a broad number of sources, they have actually reduced the incentive for people to join the TC.

And the result?

Rex Brooks: With apologies to OASIS, I have to say that I find the current policy to have, in effect, killed the public comment lists, to the detriment of the TCs and OASIS at large at a time when many of us are trying our best to improve the stature of OASIS in the arena of standards bodies. This is a shame, and I must admit that I have, in effect, also thrown in the towel because it is a fight that I doubt we can win. The official mind is made up, and regardless of the rationale, the effect may already be irreversible.


The initial justification for the change was something about spamming: however, the current list has log in with email confirmation which provides typical protection: it would have fixed the problem rather than closing the list.

So the real reason seems to have been the one that OASIS' Karl Best gave on being pressed: to force membership of TCs: pay up or shut up. This disenfranchises the poor, the intermittent and those with a particular issue to deal with: I would have thought the challenge was trying to engage these kind of eyeballs on our standards and standard technology!

More than a decade ago, standards bodies were generally freaked out that the Internet was making it so easy to find information that the publishing-revenue model of standards could not last. It is interesting that OASIS seems to have had exactly the same problem: an inadequate revenue model because it could not charge for its standards. But the solution of decreased openness seems a bad one.

In fact, I don't know of any modern standards group other than OASIS that has such a rule. One of the bad tricks that standards makers who want to force their own way can play is to get basic architectural decisions made early and put into the draft: "we can change it later" still sends shivers up my spine. Because in fact once material is in place, other decisions are made contingent on it, and the amount of work to remove the material balloons out of proportion to its problems. The result: it stays.

This is why early public exposure and engagement with the widest circle of experts as possible it so important. But OASIS looks like it is not the place for this kind of openness.

Of course, when we look at the archives of OASIS chairs, what do we see them doing? They often start up unofficial TC discussion mail lists for developers, often with a -dev suffix, to encourage participation and discussion.

The Cult of Skaro

So if OASIS ODF TC committee members cannot discuss things on the comments list, who are they? Six months ago I put the boot into the levels of participation in a blog item which was intended to be provocative in the sense that I was concerned about the corporate concentration of power in the ODF TC. (Unfortunately, a big table listing the membership numbers for the previous months went AWOL.)

Have things improved?

Here is the current membership list rollcall from this week's meeting's rollcall:

* Rollcall
+Charles Schulz, Ars Aperta
  Peter Junge, Beijing Redflag Chinese 2000 Software Co., Ltd.
+Don Harbison, IBM
+Mingfei Jia, IBM
+Yue Ma, IBM
+Rob Weir, IBM
+Patrick Durusau
+Dennis E. Hamilton
+David Wheeler, Institute for Defense Analyses
+David Faure, KDE e.V.
+Eric Patterson, Microsoft
+Stephen Peront, Microsoft
+Jomar Silva, ODF Alliance
+Bob Jolliffe, Republic of South Africa, Department of Science and
Technology
+Michael Brauer, Sun Microsystems (presiding)
+Eike Rathke, Sun Microsystems
+Oliver Wittmann, Sun Microsystems
Voting Members are indicated with a + before their name.

* 16/17 voting members present, so quorum requirements have been met.

Florian Reuter will loose voting rights after the end of
this call.

We can see that 10/16 voting members present belong to developer/vendors. (There are other links too, not necessarily sinister. Charles Schultz's "Community Relationships Management" company wrote a white paper for IBMs IBM Workplace product, but had a policy of not commenting on who their clients are, and I don't think OASIS requires any such thing. And Patrick Durusau is of course sponsored as ODF editor by Sun: he has an impeccable track record for transparency.)

The voting rules at OASIS are here: if there is a quorum present, then voting is usually by simple majority of cast votes (i.e. abstentions don't count either way.)

Which means that at that OASIS ODF TC meeting if IBM and Sun people vote as a block (voting is by individual, not company at OASIS), they only need to a maximum of two people on their side to get whatever they want. (The current chairs of the TC are from Sun and IBM.)

This seems an improvement over the past, but it would be great if the ODF TC had more members representing end users rather than suite developers in general. A balance is needed, for credibility as well as to make up for the lack of public discussion channels. At the moment there are still only four or five representing u


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2 Comments

Uhh. Rick. You fail to mention that at the same time OASIS restricted discussion on the comment list they also gave the ability for TC's to create other lists specifically for discussion. I know you know this, because I personally invited you to join the ODF TC's discussion list. The comment list has special IP terms associated with it (The Feedback Licence) and is not intended for discussion. We have other lists for that purpose which are open for participation by the public and TC members.

Also, you post an excerpt from the minutes and claim that is the membership list. This is false. You simply posted the meeting attendance. The TC's membership list is much longer and can be found by clicking the "membership" link (Doh!) on the TC's home page.

Btw, can you point me to where the current membership of SC34 is listed? Or where the membership of Ecma TC45 is listed? Or where I can send a comment to either group? Or where their public discussion lists are?

Rob: I have changed "membership list" to "rollcall". It does not change my point.

The current membership of SC34 can be seen by going to the SC34 website www.jtc1sc34.org and clicking "Membership." (Doh!) If you want to know individual working group members, that depends on the delegations that National Bodies send each time and the invited experts that the chairs recognize each time, and some NBs have privacy requirements (to stop unscrupulous operators from threatening delegates with legal consequences if they vote a certain way, for example.) Ask the national bodies.

(Office holders and editors' names are public though: see http://www.itscj.ipsj.or.jp/sc34/open/Secretariat_report.htm#POW )

For mailing lists, SC34 WG1 (which is the equivalent of a TC) has long had an active list with a good amount of user interaction, through its DSDL.ORG website: see www.dsdl.org. This list is where most broad WG1 technical discussion occurs, so the WG1 meetings can be occupied with drafting arcana.

Yes, you invited me to join a list which did not actually have any way to join it from the OASIS public pages that supposedly lead to it. (And when I tried the backdoor method, I stuffed up doing the confirmation, so I thought it didn't work.)

So TC members are free to participate as much as they like on this list? That would be good news.

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