Ken Krechmer's 2008 Open Standards: a Call for Action is the latest version of his influential Open Standards paper: he has reworked it regularly to keep it relevant. This version mentions his Adaptability Standards which I have blogged about before. "Open standards are not an idle desire."
I would be interested to see it updated with reflection on the IS29500 pie-fight, for example I think the issues of balance of interest and licenses that are OSI-acceptable but not GPL/free would be interesting.
Catching up on the Wikipedia edits on the subject (to get an idea of the mentality still operating: see this mad one, which would remove any plain citations to the ISO standards themselves) I found that that an interesting section he had contributed had been deleted for being an editorial.
Anyway, I hope Ken doesn't mind me taking the liberty of reprinting it here (as the license allows.) I decided to do so before I had read it, because Ken has continued to be a seminal thinker with good academic restraint.
However, it turns out that I pretty much see eye-to-eye with Ken, from what he has written. I could have written "Successful standardization is not about winning or losing" (I say it like this: the international standards process is biased towards win/win) and I wish I had written his follow-up sentence "Successful standardization is always a trade off between private gain and public good." His last paragraph is the killer.
(And now it is on the web, some other Wikipedia editor could link here, if they thought the article warranted it.)
A Standardization Perspective of the OOXML Standardization
With the almost universal success of personal computing, many document formats have emerged. The producing and consuming systems have to support common document formats for documents to inter-operate. As these different formats emerge, are extended and revised, compatibility issues develop when documents are transferred between systems. This drove the need for the public standardization of Office Open eXchange Markup Language (OOXML).
In Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft recognized the need for more flexible document formats and used XML as the means to identify different document formats or subsets of document formats. The widespread success and utilization of Microsoft document formats (for text processing, spreadsheets and presentation documents) also led to the desire to standardize these proprietary document formats. This is termed responsive standardization - when the standard is created after the product is available in the market - and often occurs after a successful product has achieved widespread utilization. In such cases, the public wishes to better control the compatibility of the proprietary product as compatibility has become too important to be left solely in the control of a commercial developer. Commercial developers have strong financial incentives to revise proprietary products, often reducing compatibility, to increase their revenues.
In response to the desire for standardized and for more flexible document formats, Microsoft developed OOXML which includes an XML structure and syntax (perhaps evolved from similar structures in Open Document Format, ODF, ISO/IEC 26300:2006) to determine the different document formats and also includes the entire schema (so Microsoft states) that defines their proprietary document formats. In effect OOXML includes a newer functionality (the XML structure) and a responsive standard (definitions of existing Microsoft document formats). It is always difficult to find consensus in a standardization committee when there is significant commercial impact. When a potential standard also includes previous proprietary functionality, which therefore favors one company, everyone seems to take sides.
The joining of the XML identification and selection processes, which are related to what the competing document format ODF already offers, with the public definition of Microsoft's previously proprietary document formats created an understandable firestorm of protest by competitors (e.g., IBM) and supporters of ODF. Rational arguments were made against the inclusion of proprietary document formats in a public standard. Such arguments also discussed the potential compatibility problems using XML to select complex document formats. Less rational arguments were made against the standardization of another document format standard. Less rational because there were already many different document formats in wide use. When personal computer systems are programmable, compatibility does not suffer when multiple document formats are available so long as an automatic means to select among them is provided. Consider the widespread use of multiple different browsers on the same personal computer. In the end OOXML, was accepted as a public standard - ISO/IEC 29500:2008.
The use of XML to determine document formats is a step forward for Microsoft from the use of binary file document formats (pre Office 2007) where document types are determined by file name extension (.xxx). The use of XML likely feels to the supporters of ODF as a classic Microsoft embrace-and-extend strategy. Such a strategy leaves some feeling that the most innovative standard did not win. Successful standardization is not about winning or losing. Successful standardization is always a trade off between private gain and public good. Microsoft has achieved a marketing advantage by standardizing OOXML which supports backward compatibility to earlier Microsoft document formats. On the other hand, the public good is certainly served by bringing Microsoft's widely used proprietary file formats into a public standard. The public good may also be well served by an ongoing competition between ODF and OOXML functionality. These are good arguments in favor of the ISO/IEC decision.
Looking to the future, both ODF and OOXML only support flexibility, the ability of one end to select among an offered range of document format options. They do not support adaptability, the ability of each end to negotiate with the other to select or acquire a mutually acceptable set of document format options. Therefore these document format standards do not resolve longer term compatibility issues. It is certainly possible that proprietary extensions to either standard may be created to address this issue, but eventually there will be a need for further standardization if archival document compatibility is a goal.
This is material written by Ken Kerchmer for the Wikipedia page Standardization of Office Open XML 12 March, 2009, used here and available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License