New Adventures in Spin

by Rick Jelliffe

The Open XML standardization process is in its most interesting time at the moment: the various National Bodies are deliberating, the extreme anti-Open XML people have largely abandoned the sillier of their claims and tempered the rest, the moderate Open XML people are bringing up a lot of good issue (many of which seem reasonable and fixable to me), the Ecma side is having to seriously consider what kinds of changes they can live with, and national bodies have to look at whether particular issues identified are at the showstopper level of seriousness (not all flaws in a spec are showstoppers: some are better left to maintenance, of course. And few "showstoppers" are actually reasons to vote no in any case, in the ISO context.)

From my perspective, the lion's share of problems will be solvable simply by appropriate clarification of the text (i.e. the normal 'wordsmithing' that goes on in a standard prior to its final acceptance. I presume that the intent of fast-tracking precludes changes that invalidate existing documents or require changes to semantics: what good would ISO PDF be, for example, if it did not reflect the pre-existing reality of PDF? But I do see scope for syntax additions, which MS would have to support as part of some service pack. It will be a test of their seriousness.)

I am due to speak to Bureau of Indian Standards today, largely on the same topics as in my recent blog on developing Principles for evaluating standards. (This was the same blog that various anti-Open XML ranters portrayed as being pretty far-out; in fact it is not even cutting edge...) Microsoft has flown me up here to talk to the local standards committee, on invitation from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce; there is quite a feeling here that India does not need any artificial barriers to trade and that document standards help industry.

20 Comments

Iceberg
2007-06-27 00:06:57
Does to "reflect the actuality of real-world" mean that one really has to accept the 6000 page iceberg (not spelt iceburg)?
Best both baby and bathwater in to that cold sea.


See even I can spin a few meaningless metaphors - but there again I'm not flown by MS anywhere important.


Enjoy your trip!


Rick Jelliffe
2007-06-27 04:46:39
Iceburg: No you do not need to accept it. No-one needs to use any voluntary ISO standard. You choose the best one for the job. This may be ODF in many cases. It may be that Open XML is never suitable for you and that you should never use it.. So please allow it for the rest of us who would be served by it becoming an ISO standard. If it is no use to you, and since it doesn't affect ODF adoption, why should you care?
Rick Jelliffe
2007-06-27 23:25:40
Monsoon just started here in Delhi, so I have more time to write.


One thing that strikes me about the MS approach to pushing Open XML and the IBM approach to trying to prevent it, is that MS is approaching it as a sales job (get the product out there, launch education campaigns, locate decision makers) while IBM is approaching it as like a political campaign (get emotional commitment from the masses, simplify the issues into black-white/us-them/good-evil, demonize the opposition, organize a unified message-of-the-day from multiple sources). I guess that the weakness of the MS approach is that it may not facilitate stark enough feedback to the technical decision-makers in MS about needed fixes; the weakness of the IBM approach is that if some of the messages-of-the-day are found on relfection to be daffy, ill-founded or over-stated, it may damage their credibility with more critical decision makers.


Now time for an nice cup of Assam tea. I have no more MS seminars booked so I am a private citizen again, with the exception that they kindly agreed to pay for my trip to Extreme Markup in Montreal in August. I think I still owe them a couple of hours of Wikipedia editing too.

Mauricio
2007-06-28 00:04:10
How perfectly ironic than someone would object to your use of "iceburg" -- an alternate spelling accepted in the Oxford English Dictionary.


Perhaps he believes that "iceberg" represents best practice for spelling the term for a large floating mass of ice. Or maybe it's a simple matter of not checking the facts before making false allegations, just like other claims made by those that oppose Open XML.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-06-28 04:01:16
Maurizio: Yes, it is trivial. But iceberg is preferable. An iceburg should be a town made from ice, I guess. The lettuce seems to be spelled with the u most commonly.
J David Eisenberg
2007-06-28 10:08:30
The problem isn't that Jan/Feb. 1900 is an "edge case"; yes, you can program around those two months, but that's too much like the joke programmers used to post on the board at the computing center: "Byte 0x7a6c is not working today. Please program around it."


The real problem is that the Office XML spec violates of an existing ISO standard that *is* being used in the "actuality of the real-world." Furthermore, ISO 8601 allows dates before 1900; Office XML does not. Such dates are very useful in, say, a document pertaining to genealogy. Real estate records can quite easily require dates before 1900. Disregarding an established (first published in 1988) standard is serious enough for a "no" vote.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-06-28 23:56:33
David: Ah, back on message: criticize Open XML as if it were a blue-sky standard. No-one is denying that dates are useful. Dates before 1582 would be useful for SQL DATE to support too. You are criticizing the application, not the specification.


My point was that there are simple text fixes as well as changes to the syntax that could be used. The issue isn't a showstopper but an edge case, no matter how much huffing and puffing goes on.


Open XML is a specification like ISO PDF, where if the specification does not correspond to to the objective external technology (i.e. the information that Office actually uses or provides or requires for lossless file storage) then it is useless. That it has Office-specific ideosyncracies is its point, not an objection.


If ODF potentially supports a larger date range, that is a reason to say that ODF is better for some particular purposes, not a reason to say that Open XML should not become a standard. (In any case, I support spreadsheet-value dates also allowing ISO8601, it seems a curious omission given that they are used everywhere else in Open XML, including in SpreadsheetML.)


By the way, your comment on "violating" is completely wrong. ISO8601 gives a standard format that can be used for internationalized Gregorian dates. It does not ban ranges, and ranges do not violate it in anyway. Indeed, XML Schemas provides facilites to declare ranges of dates.

J David Eisenberg
2007-06-29 14:25:17
I stand corrected on the range issue. Do you know if the "1900 is a leap year" issue will be fixed? Do you agree that it should be? Edge case or not, I'm pretty sure that it isn't in line with ISO 8601. Will the range of valid years be widened? Do you agree that it should be? Edge case or not, making the range of years wider would be useful. Or does "fast track" mean that we will be saddled with these edge cases (and perhaps others; I haven't had the time to carefully read all 6000 pages) forever?
Rick Jelliffe
2007-06-30 06:34:42
David: Do I agree that MS should increase their date range? Who am I to have an opinion on such a thing? I don't use spreadsheets. If Open XML becomes a standard, then the standards revision process becomes an extra channel for MS to connect with national user communities (and their requirements) through; if Open XML does not become a standard, it leaves them in the comfortable position of being completely independent of any formal liason processes with user/pre-regulatory communities.
J David Eisenberg
2007-07-01 12:54:40
"If Open XML becomes a standard, then the standards revision process becomes an extra channel for MS to connect with national user communities..."


I'd say "a first channel," given that Microsoft showed absolutely no interest in using an existing channel (OASIS) to connect with the user communities involved in OpenDocument. As an OASIS member, Microsoft could have joined the TC and presented their case for improvements to OpenDocument such that it could represent Microsoft's documents.


2007-07-03 00:37:57
@J David Eisenberg


Whether or not Microsoft engaged with OASIS has nothing to do with the standardisation process of Open XML.


Andrew

Andrew
2007-07-03 00:38:36
@J David Eisenberg


Whether or not Microsoft engaged with OASIS has nothing to do with the standardisation process of Open XML.


Andrew

Segedunum
2007-07-03 04:25:07
the extreme anti-Open XML people have largely abandoned the sillier of their claims and tempered the rest


Are you ever going to address these claims, and explain this attitude, are are you just continually going to jump up and down? I'm afraid that statement means exactly the same no matter how many times you write it - nothing.


If some people are rather upset as to what's being pointed out about OpenXML, then well, sorry. Tough luck.


From my perspective, the lion's share of problems will be solvable simply by appropriate clarification of the text


And again. Given that OpenXML's reason for being, according to Microsoft, is backwards compatibility, if sections of the specification relating to this remain totally open ended unexplained and unspecified then it's useless as a standard. Imagine if something like ISO 9000 was like this.


I believe I've explained this umpteen times before as well. If Microsoft want to document their formats and keep parts of it rather closed, unexplained and unspecified then that's fine. I have no problem with that. However, as an ISO standard that implies that it must meet the ISOs criteria and overall goals and dependencies on specific products must be removed. Again, imagine if something like ISO 9000 was like this.


As it stands, because of the above, it just doesn't meet those criteria - and the above has never been explained as to why it can simply be painted over. It's just repeated again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again as if it's some form of answer. Cluestick: It isn't.

Segedunum
2007-07-03 04:50:29
@Andrew


Whether or not Microsoft engaged with OASIS has nothing to do with the standardisation process of Open XML.


Well, people keep saying this - but yes it does. Having a track record of working in a community and working with standards bodies and creating compatible software as a result is vitally important in the whole process, because ultimately, whether something goes into the standard is practically down to Microsoft here.


Sadly, Microsoft has the poorest history of just about any company over such things, whether it be with the W3C, implementing Kerberos, LDAP or SMB. I'm sorry, but I'm not making that up. The ball is firmly in Microsoft's court, as it always is.


Just try and ask yourself what the root reason is as to why everyone has been talking about open documents. Therein lies the irony.

Segedunum
2007-07-03 05:45:50
The topic was on whether Open XML provides mappings to the old binary formats. Of course it doesn't: it is an XML specification whose *goal* is to preserve all the *information* in previous formats, not a transformation specification.


So that's a yes then - just phrased differently. OpenXML doesn't just preserve information, but it is at pains to try and preserve information, layout and meaning via tags that are backwards compatible with the previous formats and specific application functionality (functionality that needs be be deciphered or reverse engineered because it ain't in the specification ;-)). Remember the reason for OpenXML's being, according to Microsoft? Backwards compatibility.


If OpenXML only preserved information then it pretty much blows Microsoft's feeble arguments for not using ODF away completely. Everyone is just going round in circles trying to get answers to this because people just don't want to answer it.


(Just like ODF does not specify a mapping to the Star Office binary formats, and neither should it.)


ODF doesn't specify specific behaviour in specific versions of Star Office as OpenXML does with Microsoft Office. This is because ODF does it the sensible way - it lets the applications have responsibility for converting older formats, like Star Office, and converting them to ODF without any backwards baggage whatsoever. The format is in no way primarily responsible for backwards compatibility with other formats whatsoever.


Again, we keep coming back to the same, same old points and shortcomings in OpenXML that are simply not justified and not explained and not solved.


I couldn't understand why the question came up repeatedly


Because it's a bit like a mountain. Because it's there and it's pretty obvious, and it was asked repeatedly because you have no answer to it. How can you tell everyone that an apple is really an orange?


until I realized that the two people asking the questions came from experts from non-India companies with ODF-based rival products.


So says you. Does that make it so much less of question and means you don't need to respond to it? When Microsoft criticises in the other direction, is that somehow OK and deserving of an answer?


Behaving worse than little children is not how these processes work. Alas, in standards bodies you're going to have to talk and get along with people and companies that are at odds with your paymasters. See my track record comment to Andrew above.


One is to say that whenever an issue that can be solved, for example editorially with clearer text or distinguishing statements, is found, rather than fixing it we should just abandon the whole thing...


You mention that certain issues can be solved with clearer text and distinguishing statements. Might I suggest that rather than talking about it, painting it over and saying "Yer, that's not a problem" Microsoft actually does what you suggest and comes up with a new draft of the specification that solves said concerns? Talking about it means zilch.


I mean I know Microsoft already have a product released in the world that uses a fixed specification, but that's neither here nor there when it comes to ISO standardisation.


Now this could be solved simply by saying "Dates in January and February 1900 are possible but deprecated" or whatever. Instead, there is the throw out the baby with the bathwater gambit.


Again, there's simply no reason for anyone who has raised OpenXML's shortcomings to get involved in a debate here. Everything that has needed to be said has been said. The ball is now in Microsoft's court to respond with some concrete action, fix some shortcomings with the rough solutions people have suggested, come up with another draft, allow comment, respond to comments and create another draft..........


Etc. etc. until we get to a point where everyone is happy. I think I read about this process in a manual somewhere. Again, I refer you to my comment to Andrew on having a track record on working in these groups.


Without that process and action everyone is wasting their time, because people will raise the same concerns over and over again and you'll then say "Oh, it's not a problem we can just do X". Fast forward six weeks or so, the same questions are raised, no new draft of the specification has been created for review so everyone can get past those issues and you respond with the same answer - with no concrete commitment on further action.


It's pointless, and as it stands, without that very simple process people are quite right to throw the bath water out because it isn't moving forwards.


For example, the standard for ISO PDF has to reflect the actuality of real-world PDF


Well yes it does, and we have dozens of implementations of PDF and PDF readers all over the world, in the open source world, the proprietary world, printers etc. etc. and there are relatively few problems with compatibility anywhere. PDF has been given a good gestation period to the point where it has proved itself.


OpenXML hasn't. Again, we've been over this before.


and cannot go arbitrarily changing syntax or semantics: to do so would be to go against the point of a fast-tracked standard.


If syntax and semantics can't be discussed and changed, then seriously, what's the point? A fast track process is not about someone dumping a document on a desk and saying "That's it. It can't be changed". It's about iteratively improving the specification with feedback and peer review with regular and speedy new drafts. Microsoft has demonstrated that it can't do that.


The trouble with best-practice talk, is that what happens when a standard has 1,000 best practice items and 2 bad-practice items? Is that seriously enough for a "no" vote?


If a party has consistently demonstrated that it's going to do nothing about those two items, and it can't even respond to comments on two simple items, then yes it is because the process isn't moving forwards.


This is why I am expect a lot of countries will not vote simple "yes" or "no" (which is what I presume Microsoft and IBM etc would prefer) but will vote "no with comments" in order to get improvemens.


Well, what's the point of anyone making comments? If a new draft version of the spec isn't going to be produced for further comment and iteratively improved on, why bother?

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-03 16:01:34
Segedunum #1: You say that I only jump up and down and don't address issues; I take it then that you have never bothered to read the Grokdoc comments pages? For example about bitmasks.


You say that MS should put out a new draft; I take it you don't know that ECMA cannot just come up with a new draft while the current spec is under way. That is not the way the process works.
(If I were ECMA, I would have put out a fix list though.)


You say that the draft is incomplete; I take it that you have never been involved in creating a standard. Tracking down and fixing incompleteness is the purpose of much of the review process. (If I were ECMA, I would have hired an independent technical editor to go through the text for a month before submitting it to ISO though.)


You say you repeat the same issue again and again--I guess that is different from jumping up and down is it; but the ISO process provides a way to identify, discuss and fix incompleteness and inconsistencies in the text of specifications. The process is not over yet: national bodies haven't even finalized their votes and comments. Why doesn't that provide an answer? I don't understand arguments that the results of a process should be available mid-way through a process. Who do you expect to buy that, seriously? It is one thing to say "I think we have problem X, if it cannot be fixed Open XML should not become an ISO standard"; it is another thing to say "We have problem X, therefore Open XML should not become an ISO standard even if problem X is fixed" which seems to me to be the position you are taking.


Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-04 05:12:05
Segedunum #2: Why isn't Microsoft's poor track record exactly the kind of reason why one would want to rope them in opening up their native formats as XML with public schemas, giving up their pupported IP rights to sue, subjecting the documentation to scrutiny, and tying them into an external maintenance regime?


The idea that the choice is between a world with only ODF and a world with ODF and Open XML is naive in the extreme, however much a beatific vision it may be. The choice is between a world with ISO ODF plus ISO Open XML, or one with ISO ODF and unstandardized Open XML, so there there is not even the meagre constraints on Microsoft that ISO involvement provides.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-04 06:56:56
Segedunum #3: You say "Fast forward six weeks or so, the same questions are raised, no new draft of the specification has been created for review so everyone can get past those issues and you respond with the same answer - with no concrete commitment on further action."


But at the moment the ball is in the National Body's court, not Ecma's. The National Bodies can make comments on anything and provide specific text that could resolve the problem. There can be no new draft at this stage, it is simply not part of the ISO process at this time. Rather than lots of little drafts, all the comments are gathered together and processed at once, in conference.


"Well, what's the point of anyone making comments? If a new draft version of the spec isn't going to be produced for further comment and iteratively improved on, why bother?" There is indeed probably no point in comments that reduce to "Why isn't Open XML the same as ODF?" But 'Anyone' can make comments to their National Body, who probably have a committee or website for this very purpose. The committee figures out which comments are credible to them and pass them on through the ISO process. Make the comments concise and technical: refer to specific clauses and suggest specific improved text.


2007-07-09 09:35:42
>But at the moment the ball is in the National Body's court,
>not Ecma's. The National Bodies can make comments on
>anything and provide specific text that could resolve the problem


Don't worry , some NBs are preparing ... to *make no comments* !. This NBs recently joined JTC1-SC34:


Bulgaria
Côte-d'Ivoire
Sweden
Greece
Mexico
Sri Lanka


( Man ... what an interest in XML electronic formats ! )


I bet you they will submit a yes vote ( perhaps with some "fix this minor thing" comments to keep up appearances ).


Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-09 21:16:46
Anonymous: What makes you think they will all vote yes with no comments? Any facts lurking there, or just speculation and mischiefmaking?