Fake blog from SC34 meeting in Norway

by Rick Jelliffe

I couldn't attend the latest SC34 meeting physically in Oslo (I corresponded by email on some WG1 issues relating to Schematron and maintenance), but the public documents from the meeting have now been released at the SC34 website, in particular at the document website (Click on GO for N1000 to N1050.)

One extraordinary document, which I was graciously asked to co-sign, can be found on the front page. It is An open letter from SC 34 participants in the Oslo plenary, April 2008 and it makes a point so obvious it should not have to be made (but so important we all need to remind ourselves of it: it is just as wrong-headed to think that this is something "they" do but "we" could not, as it is to think that "we" are justified in doing it just because "they" did it first or more.)

SC34 is the ISO/IEC JTC1 steering committee on Document Description and Processing Languages. It historically grew out of the technical and reference publishing industry, as the group that developed SGML in the mid 1980s. In the mid-1990s many of us moved over to working through W3C to re-brand, re-jig and re-launch SGML under the name of XML, which has been moderately successful. SC34 has continued on in several main efforts: WG1 looks after schemas and markup (ISO/OASIS RELAX NG, ISO Schematron, etc) and recently handed over maintenance of the ISO standard public entity sets to the W3C MathML working group; WG2 looks after fonts and presentation issues, with a particularly strong Japanese industrial input, and is involved in the continuing development and maintenance of ISO Open Type (which people know as TrueType); WG3 looks after Topic Maps, which are a level above RDF in the semantic food chain.

An SC34 meeting typically has an opening general plenary (which means everyone is supposed to attend, though only NB delegations get to vote), then breaks out into various working groups, then have a final general plenary on the last day, which passes various resolutions that are the real outcomes of the meeting. (It seems they are giving up the opening plenary, which will allow more flexibility for Working Group scheduling: because SC34 has a strong rule that agendas and important issues need to be submitted well before the meetings, in order for full participation by NBs who might have additional language or culture burdens with Western-style disputational meetings and argy bargy.) Often the SC34 and WG meetings piggyback on some XML-related conference, to help each other's attendences and because it can make room bookings easier.

The Resolutions of the meeting include a few items of interest, but I suppose readers will be most interested in the IS29500 (OOXML) resolutions, so here is a summary:

  • SC 34 will create three distinct working groups to handle maintenance/liaison/development of IS 26300 (ODF), IS 29500 (OOXML), and interoperability/convergence between document standards. These should be operational at the next SC34 meeting, in Korea in October. Ecma TC45 has been invited to participate, with SC34 being the focus of activity rather than Ecma. I anticipate that new feature requests (rather than defect fixes) will need to be dealt with through the interoperabilty Working Group: it will be a very interesting group with a lot of interest from governments in particular.

  • For the short-term, two ad hoc groups have been set up. One, convened by Japan's Murata-san will deal with immediate collection of comments and defect reports on IS 29500, to make sure that all the un-resolved, under-resolved and new issues that are reported by NBs get dealt with by the most effective route at the time (which I presume means Ecma TC45 in the next few months, then SC34 after the new Working Groups have been established.

  • Related to this working group, SC34 is explicitly encouraging National Bodies and liaison groups to submit their editorial and technical defect reports, so that they can get dealt with sooner rather than later. I have been told there have already been some forwarded on to the Editor (who will be discussing them with Ecma TC45, I presume.) Phrases such as "efficient and timely process" are actually quite significant, because they indicate that SC34 has performance requirements which must be met (by itself, by the editor, by participants like Ecma) and that some kind of wishy-washy time-dragging maintenance effort will not be acceptable: all withing the constraint that work will only progress when there are people actually doing it: National Bodies and individuals who are interested or stakeholders or beneficiaries of a standard need to get involved with actual resources. Some of the newer P-members like South Africa seem to be doing exactly the right thing here, getting involved. And the more technical expertise, the better. (People need to remember that for ISO openness is more about being open to participate rather than being open to armchair criticism.)

  • The other new Working Group, convened by UK's Alex Brown, will look at the formalities and terms of references for the new Working Groups. (At the last SC34 meeting in Kyoto late last year, SC34 declined to set up groups until IS 29500 had been accepted.) Interestingly, in terms of reference for this ad hoc group include the need for the maintenance process to have transparency, the desirability that there should not be separate versions of Ecma and ISO OOXML (of interest to the future of ISO ODF?), and that Fast-track and PAS mechanisms should not play any part in the maintenance.

  • Along these lines, SC34 also has a rather odd reference to increasing its participation in the JTC1 working group on Directives. I presume this is a concrete sign of the strong desire to work on limiting or reform the various fast-track procedures. I would expect that more National Bodies will take the line "We will not vote for any Fast-tracked or PAS drafts to SC34" and instead submitters will use the accelerated process instead: this gives one extra stage of committee review by SC34: a fraction slower but certainly better for preventing induced panic attacks, if you know what I mean, and improving quality. (The JTC1 group is set to discuss problems with Fast-track and PAS in its July 2008 meeting: the ISO and JTC1 Directives which direct procedures at SC34 are under frequent revision.)

  • Another resolution of interest, is Resolution 1, which in part says SC 34 resolves that accessibility considerations will be taken fully into account in current and future projects and urges its members to review the work of JTC1 SWG-A (especially PDTR 29138), W3C WAI and others, and to play an active part in the implementation and further development of accessibility guidelines. One of the things that came out of the ODF and OOXML reviews was that accessibility is (with internationalization) undoubtedly a bottom-line issue, indeed a legitimate showstopper: Canada and New Zealand were admirably strong on this at the OOXML BRM for example, and both IS 26300 and IS 29500 had some good improvements for accessibility during the initial adoption process. But for living technologies, the acceptance of a standard needs to be the beginning, not the end. So this resolution gives practical ways to approach it: in particular the need for SC34 delegations to have appropriate expertise in accessibility.

It didn't seem a bad meeting. I don't have information, but I do hope the P-countries which only have interest in ODF and OOXML make the appropriate arrangements with SC34 and JTC1 to register default abstain votes on WG1, WG2 and WG3 ballots. It is really important.

My own hope is that many of the participants on the DIS 29500 who came up to speed in the technical and standards issues of their expertise, will channel their enthusiasm into places where it can actually make a difference: get involved in your local standards National Body SC34 mirror committee long term, get involved in OASIS ODF and OpenFormula, get involved in W3C, get involved in Ecma TC45, get involved in SC 34. Lobby for more openness at all levels. Keep the pressure on both sides (err, on *all* sides!), so that the differentiators between ODF and OOXML become clearer and gratuitous differences get sanded down, because it is this competitive pressure that is forcing improvements on both sides, not the ISO stamp per se! No pressure without participation; no participation without pressure!


2008-04-10 09:11:13
Uh, I am being bounced because there is something wrong with my name or e-mail?

Anyhow, great post but I couldn't get the SC34 documents link to work. This seems to be the proper URL:

Rick Jelliffe
2008-04-10 09:36:24
Dennis: Bounced?

I have updated the link: the one returned by the document server is as you found out not usable. Thanks for that.

Buck Martin
2008-04-10 15:11:23
In regard to your article on the meeting in Oslo, a ping back:

Private deal to approve OOXML? More evidence surfaces

Circumstantial evidence is mounting of one or more private deals having been struck to approve DIS-29500 Office Open XML ("OOXML") as an international standard, a deal that may have played a role in several key national standardization bodies changing their voting position to approve OOXML.



Rick Jelliffe
2008-04-11 00:11:36
Buck: Thanks for the link! It made my day. Excellent!

The BRM did not reject harmonization for ODF and OOXML: the sentiment of the meeting was clearly in favour of it as a program. And there were several resolutions that progressed it: the ones relating to MathML and the whole transitional conformance class.

What a lot of delegates discovered during the BRM was that convergence and harmonization has to be a two way street (that both ODF and OOXML need features to fit together), that it requires study and facts (such as the DIN work), that it requires time and effort and negotiation (not something that can be done in a week at a BRM), and that it requires actual draft text and a program of work. Getting from A to C requires going through B. So the BRM concentrated on the issues at hand, and getting IS 29500 into a state where the co-evolution/convergence/interop/harmonization effort would be a natural result, rather than something difficult.

For example, the fix for the CEILING() function introduced a prefix system which can progress naturally into a namespace/module system with semantic (though not syntactic) compatability with the ODF OpenFormula module system. The BRM was like John the Baptist, calling for the roads to be smoothed, preparing for something bigger, later, if my analogy is not too bizarre!

Secret deals? I think the trouble is that people don't have any idea of the collegial way that ISO groups work. When some NBs say that they are not happy that the BRM was too short, or that review time was too short, or whatever, the other NBs *especially* those NBs who disagreed that the time was showstoppingly too short will still treat the complaint with respect, and this is reflected in the strong desire for SC34 to have a fast, efficient, pro-active maintenance procedure. It is not a "You lost, shut up" system: in a consensus system, you often don't get the program you ask for, but participants take very seriously trying to find ways of identifying the underlying need and trying to at least *part-way* address it.

If MS does not take the SC34 maintenance program seriously, I have no doubt that IS 29500 will be destandardized in a year or two. The requirement for a strong, more open maintenance process was one of the messages that really came through strongly during and after the BRM, and I think it is certainly understood by Ecma that they only had a successful ballot because of this expectations by NBs.

However, you shouldn't think this was strange or unusual. No "secret deal".