B-razi-loggers Rage and Roll Against ISO Approval of Microsoft Standard

April fool’s day this year has brought a bitter taste to the Brazilian open source community. The announcement of the approval of Microsoft’s Open XML Format (OOXML) as an ISO/IEC International Standard was, at first, seen as some kind of joke. After all, OOXML had lost a vote on its adoption at ISO in September 2007. The voting members had requested hundreds of adjustments to the standard however it is widely known that today the majority have remained unimplemented. But let’s check out why such a drab debate over technical standards has caught the attention of so many bloggers in Brazil.

The open source movement in Brazil, with all its successes and failures, has somehow turned into a cultural trend. In this context, Microsoft’s Office suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc.) and its proprietary files’ format became the very symbol of the monopolistic obstacle against the freedom pursued by free software activists, and also the main target of government agencies’ official substitution policies. Where the Linux operating system was still not ready to reign, at least OpenOffice — with it’s ISO approved ODF file format standard — could help breaking Microsoft’s cultural hegemony. And it worked!

In fact, it seems that the strategy has worked too well. Microsoft started to see its multi-billion dollar Office business model menaced by the rising trend of governments giving preference to open standards in their decisions on software acquisition. The tactical reaction of Microsoft in defense of their monopoly position was to blitz for the sanction of their incompatible alternative format Open XML as a second ISO standard. Bloggers decried that the strategy used to carry OOXML through the ISO fast-track process has damaged the standard’s credibility and created serious consequences for the whole concept of open standards. Indeed, Microsoft tactics can bring forth an intense rage among those Brazilians who have worked so long and so hard for open standards, and it is not surprising to see MS portrayed not merely as a monopolist but as a monster.

Although having (barely) followed the procedural norms, ISO has lost (or at least damaged) its credibility by being involved in a process that was corrupted behind the scenes by a series of suspicions, irregularities, lobbies and so forth. If the approval had been reached by agreement, be it through Fast-Track or not, ISO would have maintained its credibility. But by passively conceding to Redmond’s pressure, and not checking the decision-making procedures of the various countries, ISO has damaged its credibility in a permanent way — and somehow thwarted all the other ISO standards.
OOXML = ISO 29500 – Microsoft Wins, we all loseLinux… e mais coisas

The novel twist is this case seems to be that being open has brought a commercial advantage to open source initiatives based on the ODF standard, and Microsoft was forced to adapt to the new situation. As deep-seated rivals, Microsoft and Brazilian officials who were dedicated to open source were not entirely ready to face each other in an open exchange at first.

From the heights of its self-attributed superiority, and acting with its well known arrogance, Microsoft has come to declare, at the time of the meeting of the “Work Group 2” — whose goal was to analyze the … comments delivered to the … [ISO standard’s process] … in January — that “Brazil should not present opinions if they are not able to finish their analysis”. Well, the total number of Brazilian comments was above 2000 — is this volume not expressive enough?
Unhappily OOXML was approved by ISOOpen2Tech


It must have been the first time that so many countries have engaged in the debate over a technical standard. From the open source side, the communities are proud of their ODF/ISO-26300 standard, which aroused the giant Microsoft to wage a global war only to make their spec match ODF’s status. From the other side, huge commercial interests are at stake when Microsoft-based third-party vendors around the world are at risk of being excluded from contracts because the company has no ISO approved format. National delegations were in charge of the vote, and bloggers are decrying that ‘non-technical’ issues have influenced the decision.

When we read in blogs and in the tech media about what happened in many of these countries, where tech groups were against the approval, but the local NB [national standards body] staff opted to vote YES or absent, we must recognize and praise the excellence of what was accomplished in Brazil by ABNT [Brazilian Association of Technical Norms], showing a behavior that stands as an example to other NBs around the world!
OpenXML was approved… what now?Free Software Movement from Paraná

There were many countries at ISO who, out of cowardice and / or incompetence, failed to vote. Among them were our neighbors Chile and Argentina, and also other ‘important’ countries such as Holland, Australia, Belgium, France, Italy, Russia, Spain, Luxemburg, Malysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Vietnan, Zimbabwe and Kenya. All of these were absent. Terrible!!! Now office suites software will be like cell phone chargers, bivolt (with ODF and OpenXML).
(Comment from Free Software Movement from Paraná at Open XML: Did they really win?)

Vitorio has talked about these countries, and it was really sad, but it was worse to be aware of distortions in important votes such as Norway’s, whose group has openly asked to change their vote to NO — it was like 24 voted NO, and 2 voted Yes, but Norway’s vote came out as YES… It is sad! We won’t talk about other irregularities such as in Italy, Portugal, France, Germany, Poland, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden and many others including the US. That phrase they use, “Money Talks”, is true. I can imagine how ashamed are the tech people from these countries who had distorted their votes. They study, research and find out that it does not hold as a standard. They vote against it. But still their vote comes through as ‘Yes’ or ‘Absent’.
(Comment from Movimento Software Livre Paraná at Open XML: Eles realmente ganharam?)

A prominent name of this debate is Jomar Silva, General Director of the Brazilian Chapter of the ODF Alliance and member of the Brazilian delegation, who is blogging in Portuguese and in English. His reports are providing an inside perspective on the debate.

According to Jomar, who was at ISO’s BRM [Ballot Resolution Meeting], someone came to him during a coffe break and subtlely asked him not to raise an important question in the process analyzing the OOXML request to become an ISO standard: the non-existence of a mapping from the legacy format (ex: .doc) and the new format (ex: .docx)… If this mapping is out of the OOXML specification, its main goal is invalid. The specification is invalid. The Brazilian delegation wanted to raise the issue of: where is the mapping? But here is another point. Someone asking him to not raise the issue is one thing…. What escapes me is why ISO has not allowed Brazil to present this [line of] questioning? All I know is that the blogosphere will be all around the subject in the next few days, and I will follow closely Rob Weir, Bob Sutor, Andy Updegrove, Groklaw and a bunch of reactions that Jomar’s translated post is receiving.
Wrangling at ISOAvi Alkalay

It is worth mentioning that even Jomar Silva, a fiery ODF standard advocate, is among the commenters able to find positive perspectives brought by the whole process. Obviously, Microsoft’s retreat from proprietary file formats to open and XML-based (easier to manipulate, produce and consume) file formats is good news. And their commitment to work on translators to support ODF as native file formats in MS Office is something we would not have expected only a few years ago. In the long run, ODF supporters must be in favor of extoling its features and urging the widest use of it as possible and this would not be accomplished by maintaining a fundamentalist anti-OpenXML position in ISO.

We Brazilians, we have won [as a result of] entering such a battle and leaving it with our heads high (with no finger in the eye or low blows). We played according to the rules of the game, even though there were some interested parties that tried to present their version of the rules all the time. We’ve won also, because we left the battle strenghtened. We’ve never been so respected in the IT’s international market, and never before has a debate over open standards captured the agenda of so many people in the world. And thus, we have never before had the oportunity to speak to such a select audience. We’ve won because we gathered Greeks and Trojans in this debate and also because we’ve found out that rival companies can sit down, discuss and build together. This is for me a new paradigm, which will soon bring results to all involved.
Open XML: Did they really win?Jomar Silva @ Void Life (Void)

All things considered, it does seem senseless to close anyone’s path to openness, and we all must be ready to adapt to new environments.