IBM blackballs Ecma TC45

Bravo Bob! According to ZDNet, IBM will not be participating in the new Ecma International technical committee that's being formed just to rubber-stamp Microsoft's Office 12 file format. I support that decision, Bob - Sun will not be re-joining Ecma either right now. Bob said:

"We think there are just too many open switches on this right now for us to go in and do something there. Given the charter, it's not clear what anyone other than Microsoft is going to be doing on this committee"

Indeed. The TC has a charter that only allows it to make a "standard" that's compatible with Office 12. Ecma itself has no membership category for individual members (such as open source developers). Ecma has at best a RAND IPR policy. It seems that only one member actually has a vote that can change anything on TC45, so why waste energy over it?

Despite being one of the earliest trail-blazers of standardisation, the organisation seems to have allowed itself to become a sham, allowing vendors to claim openness where none exists. As Stephen O'Grady points out, they even market themselves as offering "a safe path which will minimise risk of change to input specs" and "A safe haven for IPR". They are the "Swiss bank account" of standards organisations - expensive to use but necessary when you have something to hide.

While single-vendor "standards" may have worked in the old days of atoms, and are arguably still important in industries like the mobile telephony industry, they have no place in the world of software where multi-lateral, transparent, inclusive, open standards are becoming mandatory because of the participation age.

Update Dec 22: Pamela has a great suggestion.


While I agree this is not an opportunity for anyone to improve the MS-XML format, is it really a disaster that it's a single vendor standard (yes I know that technically it sucks), but from the point of view of interoperability, as long as i can get the standards doc (and believe their convenant, which is another worry), I can implement it can't I? How is that different from PDF - which is also a single vendor standard (or is it not?)

Posted by Bryan on December 21, 2005 at 09:25 PM PST #

Yes, there are similarities with PDF, which is imperfect as a standard. PDF has a broken process but by now has a sufficiently established baseline that all Adobe's efforts to monetise it by extension are de-fanged. I remain cautious about recommending it as a process exemplar.

I think you're being a bit optimistic about the virtues of having the Office 12 XML spec from Microsoft. The fact is that Microsoft's 1900+ page specification is just a serialisation of their internal data structures (see for example page 1409,

<blockquote class="cite">"Furthermore, the highest-two bits within this value are reserved for GDI internal use, and may not be assigned to code pages."

Plenty more where that came from - it has dual methods for doing the same thing to accomodate previous false starts with their older XML, for example.

The net of that is that anyone attempting to implement the spec to build a competing product has huge disadvantages and faces an insurmountable cost barrier. PDF does not fall into that category - as single-vendor specs go it is highly portable. So, point granted philosophically, but practically PDF and Office 12 XML are on different worlds.

Posted by Simon Phipps on December 21, 2005 at 10:37 PM PST #

Oh I agree that technically there is no merit in their proposals. I just think that if one is going to marshall arguments along these lines it is important to distinguish between the standardisation issues, the technical issues, and the legal issues. On those grounds, although the ECMA route is a rubber stamp, in and of itself, it doesn't preclude a useful outcome. But the technical issues and the loopholes in the covenant are still good reasons why no one should rely on these protocols for long time curation of important information.

Posted by bryan on December 22, 2005 at 03:59 AM PST #

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