NZOSS president weighs in on Aussie standards battle

Microsoft consultant to be included in Australian OOXML standards delegation

In what may be a perceived threat to the objectivity of the Office Open XML standards process, Standards Australia will include a Microsoft developer and consultant as part of its delegation for this month's Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in Geneva.

Computerworld Australia has learned Standards Australia will send one internal employee accompanied by Topologi director Rick Jelliffe as the delegation for the BRM, despite an initial pledge to send two internal employees.

Last year Jelliffe was implicated in editing OOXML Wikipedia entries at the request of Microsoft. A public explanation is available on Jelliffe's blog.

New Zealand Open Source Society president and director of open source consulting firm Catalyst IT Don Christie has been keeping a close eye on the whole standards process and believes Standards Australia, not Jelliffe, is to blame for the backflip.

"A lot of people were shocked by that backflip," Christie says. "My problem is not that Standards Australia is talking to Rick, it is that they are not taking account of other people's views."

Christie believes Standards Australia is not recognising this process is "pretty sensitive" as Microsoft is "the world's biggest monopoly" and there are alternative views.

"What is in dispute is not Rick's 'right' to be involved in the standards process," Christie says. "He is technically competent and very familiar with the ISO processes; however, he has taken a position that OOXML must become a standard and we should all just accept that."

According to Christie, there are "very real and pragmatic concerns" that many developers and standards experts have about OOXML. Not philosophical issues, but born out of a recognition of where standards add value — like HTML and CSS — and where "things can go wrong", like IE5.5 and what impact that has on everyone.

"Rick does not represent these views well and he is certainly not seen by a wide community as independent — even though he can argue that he is," Christie says. "This fact, along with European Commission concerns about the OOXML process, should make Standards Australia extremely cautious about how it approaches the ISO process. If I had been in their shoes I would have done what Standards NZ did. Take along a Rick equivalent (in our case a Microsoft employee), but also take along a voice that represented other sections of the software community — that, broadly speaking, is everyone except Microsoft."

Christie has labelled Standards Australia's decision as completely ignorant of the software development community and is "either unbelievably arrogant or plain stupid".

Kate Evans from Standards Australia, says a Standards Australia representative will be attending the BRM in Geneva and that it will await the agreed resolutions from JTC1 after the BRM has concluded. However, Evans made no mention that another delegate, Rick Jelliffe, will be the senior Australian participant in the ISO ballot.

The only reason Computerworld has obtained for the backflip is the original two employees are unable to attend the BRM.

Director of government affairs at IBM Australia, Kaaren Koomen, who manages a technical person in the OOXML working group, says there were obvious discussions within the committee about who should represent Australia in Geneva and it was satisfied with the two Standards Australia people.

"We were quite surprised there was a change in the delegation without consultation with the committee and when we were advised by Standards Australia of the change there was consternation," Koomen says.

Koomen says the working group was not surprised at the ensuing discussion and there are a number of parties that are not comfortable with the change, including IBM.

"In terms of the BRM we would be relieved if there was another representative on the Australian delegation that felt confident so they could present other views that were more balanced," she says.

Director of Sydney-based open source advisory firm Waugh Partners Jeff Waugh says with concerns of bias and corruption tainting other working groups, the local standards group wants to ensure Standards Australia is not seen to have similar problems.

Waugh, who is also on Standards Australia's OOXML working group, says with two objective participants previously, the group wants to see what NZ has done applied here.

"We would suggest Standards Australia go with a no vote, but it's difficult to see a consensus form around 'no' given the way the process has been run," Waugh says, adding Jelliffe's presence will "certainly have an impact".

"I don't know what they are going to do, but with the position they are in the most likely option is to abstain."

Waugh believes Jelliffe has raised some good comments about the specification, but says it is disconcerting that his commentary of OOXML is along the lines of "yes, there are problems with it, but none are showstoppers so we should standardise it anyway".

"Nothing fazes him about the quality of the specification," Waugh says. "A restructure of the document would help and the ECMA has restructured it quite significantly, but we are still on this fast-track process and we don't have a huge amount of time to go through it before it could become a standard."

"Saying no means saying no to the fast-track process," Waugh says. "There is a view that more time is needed to go through the specification, and there is a view that by standardising it now we are going to push back the option to further harmonise the OOXML and ODF standards."

Waugh says bringing more of the features of the two standards together will eliminate having two standards for many of the same things, and from a locally ISV point of view would simplify the work required by ISVs to support the document formats.

Another organisation on the OOXML working group is Google.

A Google spokesperson told Computerworld the question of whether OOXML is ready for approval as an ISO/IEC standard "is of enormous importance, and we believe that Australia's interests would be much better represented in Geneva if our delegation represented both viewpoints".

"Rick is a highly respected expert in the field of XML-based standards," the spokesperson says. "It does, however, raise concerns that by his own admission he has been a paid consultant on OOXML for the very company proposing it as a standard."

Rick Jelliffe was unavailable for comment.

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