The suspension of the Malaysian committee: interrupting the conversation

by Rick Jelliffe

I just caught up with the interesting news item of a fortnight ago that Malaysian standards body Sirim Bhd has "suspended the process for approving the Open Document Format (ODF)... as a Malaysian standard."

What was particularly interesting was the reason given: "Ariffin said some TC/G/4 members had taken to belittling other members who did not share their ... views, both during committee meetings and in personal blogs. These ... members were also attempting to short-circuit the normal consensus process for adopting a document standard, he said. " ""There has been unprofessional conduct and a lack of ethical standards among some members of the technical committee. "

Now I don't know anything more than the article and various blogs around the place claim. But if this represents a trend by standards bodies to get tough on personal attacks and so try to bring back a more professional and civil level of discourse, then that is great.

A cooling-off period may seem a strange approach if we have the idea of standards committees as being like courts of law that judge technologies. But in fact they are like formalized conversations. Courtrooms are the world of accusation and defense; standards procedures are the world of dialog: questions, answers, suggestions, tentative questions, and so on. Committee procedures stop hectoring and bullying, and make sure that member's voices are heard: this is frequently boring, but nevertheless a Good Thing.) The aim of a conversation is the meeting of minds: I have mentioned before that the ISO process is one of consensus, of trying to find win-win positions, and I think the same is generally true of national bodies.** (Of course, not every conversation is constructive, or cannot be dominated, so I don't want to take the analogy too far!) IIRC, ISO suspended the 802.3 committee because it did not seem to be constructively engaging with China for a similar timeout; it is unusual, and salutatory but pragmatic.

Sirim's boss Dr Ariffin makes some very interesting side points too: I hadn't heard* his attributed view, for example, that 'a mandatory standard would constitute an illicit non-tariff barrier against software products using other document formats.'

I think his reported position that 'a standard can only be mandatory when public health or safety is at stake" has a nuance: it relies on the distinction between voluntary standards (where users decide to adopt) and mandatory standards (where the state forbids anything else, say due to treaty obligations, and may police). Governments, as organizations, can still restrict themselves to a voluntary standard as part of IT strategy or other policy, all other things being equal, however: that is a different issue.

I will be in Malaysia (and Philippines and Thailand) in mid-May, presenting some seminars on Open XML and the standards process, so maybe I'll get some better information then.


Rick Jelliffe
2007-04-17 20:33:56
(I forgot to write this thought:) Understanding the standards process as a conversation rather than a court helps to make sense of the lack of guidance at ISO on exactly what a "contradiction" is, and why the ISO secretariat continued the fast-track process for Open XML. The aim is to further and aid the conversation leading to an agreement of some kind, not to let one antagonist win over the other and take home a prize. Taking a too legalistic view of proceedings can lead people to fundamentally miss the intent and spirit of the process, and so get confused as to how things get conducted. I don't mean that procedures won't be followed, of course; the formality and fairness allows the conversation to proceed, but it is the conversation (which may run to debate) that is the substance.
2007-04-18 09:27:10
Your insider-view of what standards-development processes are like, and how it is done responsibly is extremely valuable. Thanks.
Rick Jelliffe
2007-04-18 17:05:29
orcmid: I see from your blog that you were the Chairman of an ANSI subcommittee (FORTRAN) in the late 60s. Now *there* was an influential technology!
Rob Weir
2007-04-23 14:51:25
The "illicit non-tariff barrier" argument doesn't hold water. That clause is to prevent a country from adopting and mandating the protectionist use of a national standard where an applicable International Standard already exists. Adopting an ISO standard as a national standard, or "transposing" it as it is called, is normal and entirely licit.

So if Malaysia wanted to create a new "MalaysiaML" format, make it a new national standard and require that for use by trading partners, then this would be a "illicit non-tariff barrier".

Rick Jelliffe
2007-04-25 10:50:03
Rob: Boy, you spin like a top, don't you! You know that Dr Araffin was talking about mandatory standards, which is certainly not mere vanilla "transposing".

For the record, I think every country that makes national standards should consider transposing ODF to be a voluntary national standard, by the way. ODF 1.2, due next year, is looking really good, especially!

2007-04-25 15:22:54
But if this represents a trend by standards bodies to get tough on personal attacks and so try to bring back a more professional and civil level of discourse, then that is great.

For everyone's sake, I sincerely hope that is the case:

Then people can start to talk about OpenXML and the raw details of it in a rational manner without talking about......nothing in particular.

However, we again get the usual "ODF nutcases" slant on the whole thing, with no specifics. I'm not saying that there aren't some pro-ODF people who overstep the mark, but to suggest that this does not happen from some pro-OpenXML people is just laughable. See the quoted article above, and that does go into details. I do laugh at people who take that tac of talking about personal attacks every time a point is brought up, because it just cements their bias even more. However, I suppose there isn't an awful lot left for them to talk about really. It's pretty interesting when people aren't allowed to post comments for expressing views someone clearly doesn't like, or finds very difficult or impossible to talk about ;-).

"Standards body Sirim Bhd has stopped a feud between IBM Malaysia and Microsoft Malaysia over competing technologies in this country."

Hmmmm. Sounds slightly different to the version Ariffin describes. I wonder where that came from.

"The OpenXML format would have been affected had the ODF supporters been successful in their bid."

Poor Microsoft and OpenXML supporters. They have such a weak voice and such limited scope and funds for lobbying and making their case in all of this. I find it most interesting that OpenXML is specifically referred to by name, rather than "...other formats would have been affected had the ODF supporters been successful in their bid". Just as an observation. Quite what OpenXML has to do with it, I can't say.

"Second, a mandatory standard would constitute an illicit non-tariff barrier against software products using other document formats, according to him."

I'm smiling broadly as I read that. Given that the process Malaysia has been going through has been known about for quite some time and hasn't been a secret, I'm just wondering where this comment has miraculously appeared from and how exactly he arrived at that conclusion. It certainly doesn't look as if he's been open and ethical about the process he used to arrive at that.

Given that for years, governments all over the world have had what amounts to an illicit tariff placed on them for being able to open Microsoft Office documents (enforced in software and not in government legislature or in a standard, no less), and an illicit tariff on other software products who use other document formats (the enforced use of the Windows platform for just one), I'm just wondering how all that tallies together.

That, of course, is not the only reason why governments have been looking at openly implementable document formats, but it's certainly the big one.

"He said this would violate Malaysia's commitments to free trade under the World Trade Organisation."

Interesting. Let's ban the use of all standards then, because they quite clearly inhibit free trade. However, if different software products were to use ODF and implement it (which is entirely feasible given the range of software that does actually implement it), then other software products like, oh, I don't know, Microsoft Office, would have no trouble whatsoever in Malaysia and there would be no free trade problems at all. Governments do far worse than that. I'm not seeing the justification there. It also conflicts with the ISO view of things: :-

ISO standards contribute to making the development, manufacturing and supply of products and services more efficient, safer and cleaner. They make trade between countries easier and fairer.

See ISO and world trade -

"The Malaysian document standard would only constitute an advisory endorsement of the document format's suitability for use, said Ariffin."

Which paints over the very reasons why governments everywhere have been talking about the use of open standards

In What is a Standard at ISO? I did mention that standards should not be seen as a kind of monopoly grant, like a patent, where an early grant blocks a later application.

Very true. Given that the only software application that uses OpenXML, and arguably the only software application that can use OpenXML for many reasons, is Microsoft Office, and it already has a recognised monopoly itself, OpenXML as an ISO standard would be seen as a monopoly grant. Whether anyone likes that or not, it is a legitimate concern and observation, and it is not what an ISO standard is about.

I wonder what came first? I'm not entirely sure you could create a monopoly out of an ISO standard like, say, ODF, because if the whole thing, and the process, has been properly thought out then everyone should be able to implement it ;-). That's why it's important to have standards that can have multiple, and full, implementations on a level playing field (see the free trade section above). Whether there is just ODF as an ISO standard document format, or more than one with OpenXML, it makes no difference as long as that is actually the case.

You're trying to make it sound as if many ODF supporters see ODF as being the only ISO standardised document format there should be, locking everyone else out. Not so at all. As long as OpenXML, or any other format that comes along later, is properly and fully implementable by anyone then there is no problem at all. As you say, an ISO standard should not be seen as a patent grant giving an advantage to anyone in particular. If that's not the case, well....... That's what the whole process is supposed to be for.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-04-26 03:32:39
Segedunum: Where was there any suggestion in my blog that pro-Open XML people don't make mistakes? And I linked to a previous blog where I gave a specific example (admittedly the only one I have found.) Indeed, I elided specific references to ODF supporters from the quotes to avoid getting side-tracked. The issue is that we need to be civil, not you need to be civil. (Though you need to be civil of course.)

Where is your "ODF nutcases" quote from? Not from my blog.

That you find it "laughable" is a sign of the problem. Every time there is a personal attack or slur or allegation or aspertions cast, it undermines the moral high-ground that you are claim against unscrupulous, bullying, steam-rollering Microsoft. It may play well to the converted for rah-rah purposes, but outside the ODF echo chamber there is a basic civility that is a pre-requisite before technical voices can be heard, in standards work. Many standards committees will have stories of ejecting un-civil or agenda-dominating members, it is not rare.

Why not come out strongly against personal attacks and mocking rants?

You say of Dr Ariffin "It certainly doesn't look as if he's been open and ethical about the process he used to arrive at that." To jump to judgement that Dr Ariffin is unethical, when there are other theories possible (e.g. That he is doing his job. Or they only had to make a decision on the subject when it became an issue. Or the issue is still open for discussion and debate, but after civility is restored. Or that Asian management styles are sometimes more autocratic, and Asian technical leaders often keep their own council until they make a decision.) seems to be an example of this willingness to cloud debate with personal attacks. Vindictiveness does not win friends and influence people.

On you issue of Open XML not being fully implementable, do you have any examples of the standard not being fully implementable? (And please don't insult us by bringing up unrelated external media types, because ODF has exactly the same issue. And please don't insult us by bringing up requirements for exact formatting or page- and line-breaking algorithms, let alone legacy ones, because ODF does not specify page- and line-breaking algorithms either. And please don't bait and switch so that "fully implementable" somehow becomes a conformance requirement, or even an expectation as if a spreadsheet program should implement any of PresentationML for example.)