It’s too early to say for certain, but there are very encouraging signs that the world’s standards bodies will vote in favour of a single unified ISO (“International Standards Organisation”) document format standard. There is already one document format standard – ODF, and currently the ISO is considering a proposal to bless an alternative, Microsoft’s OpenXML, as another standard. In the latest developments, standards committees in South Africa and the United States have both said they will vote against a second standard and thereby issue a strong call for unity and a sensible, open, common standard for business documents in word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.

It’s very important that we build on those brave decisions and call on all of our national standards committees, to support the idea of a single common standard for these critical documents.

The way the ISO works is interesting. There are about 150 member countries who can vote on any particular proposal. Usually, about 40 countries actually vote. In order to pass, a proposal needs to get a 75% “yes” vote. Countries can vote yes, no, or “abstain”. So normally, 10 “no” or “abstain” votes would be sufficient to send the proposal back for further consideration. In this case, however, Microsoft has been working very hard, and spending a lot of money, to convince many countries that don’t normally vote to support their proposed format.

So there is something concrete you can do, right now, today, this week! Find out which body in your country is responsible for your national representation on ISO. In SA is the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and in the US I believe it is ANSI. Your country will likely have such a body. There is a list of some of them here but it may not be complete so don’t stop if your country isn’t listed there!

Call them, or email them, and ask them which committee will be voting in the OpenXML proposal. Then prepare a comment for that committee. It is really important that your comment be professional and courteous. You are dealing with strong technical people who have a huge responsibility and take it seriously – they will not take you seriously if your comment is not well thought out, politely phrased and logically sound.

If you have a strong technical opinion, focus on a single primary technical issue that you think is a good reason to decline the proposal from Microsoft. There are some good arguments outlined here. Don’t just resend an existing submission – find a particular technical point which means a lot to you and express that carefully and succinctly for your self. It can be brief – a single paragraph, or longer. There are some guidelines for “talking to standards bodies” here.

Here are the points I find particularly compelling, myself:

  1. This is not a vote “for or against Microsoft”.
    In fact, this is a vote for or against a unified standard. Microsoft is a member of the body that defines ODF (the existing ISO standard) but is hoping to avoid participating in that, in favor of getting their own work blessed as a standard. A vote of “no OpenXML” is vote against multiple incompatible standards, and hence a vote in favour of unity.If the ISO vote is “no”, then there is every reason to expect that Microsoft will adopt ODF, and help to make that a better standard for everybody including themselves. If we send a firm message to Microsoft that the world wants a single, unified standard, and that ODF is the appropriate place for that standard to be set, then we will get a unified global standard that includes Microsoft.The reason this point is important is because many government officials recognise the essential position Microsoft holds in their operations and countries, and they will be afraid to vote in a way that could cost their country money. If they perceive that a vote “no” might make it impossible for them to work with Microsoft, they will vote yes. Of course Microsoft is telling them this, but the reality is that Microsoft will embrace a unified standard if the global standards organisation clearly says that’s a requirement.
  2. Open, consensus based document standards really WORK WELL – consider HTML
    We already have an extraordinary success in defining a document format openly, in the form of HTML. The W3 Consortium, which includes Microsoft and many other companies, defines HTML and CSS. While Microsoft initially resisted the idea, preferring to push Internet Explorer’s proprietary web extensions, it was ultimately forced to participate in W3C discussions.The result is a wonderfully rich document format, with many different implementations. Much of the richness of the web today comes directly from the fact that there is an open standard for web documents and web interactions. Look at a classy web page, and then look at a classy Word document, and ask yourself which is the most impressive format! Clearly, Word would be better with an open standard, not one defined by a single company.
  3. A SINGLE standard with many implementations is MUCH more valuable than multiple standards
    Imagine what would happen if there were multiple incompatible web document standards? You couldn’t go to any web site and just expect it to work, you would need to know which format they used. The fact that there is one web document standard – HTML – is the key driver of the efficiency of the web as a repository of information. The web is a clear example of why ODF is the preferred structure for a public standard.ODF, the existing standard, is defined openly by multiple companies, and Microsoft can participate there along with everyone else. They know they can – and they participate in other standards discussions in the same organisation.Microsoft will say that “multiple standards give customers choice”. But we know that it is far more valuable to have a single standard which evolves efficiently and quickly, like HTML. The network effects of document exchange mean that one standard will in any event emerge as dominant, and it is important to governments, businesses and consumers that it be a standard which ITSELF offers great choice in implementation. People don’t buy a standard, and they don’t use a standard document, they use a software or hardware tool. If the “standard” only has one set of tools from one vendor, then that “choice of standards” has effectively resulted in zero choice of provider for customers. Consider the richness of the GSM cellular world, with hundreds of solution providers following a single global standard, compared to the inefficiency of countries which allowed proprietary networks to be installed on public frequencies.ODF is already implemented by many different companies. This means that there are many different tools which people can choose to do different things with their ODF documents. Some of those tools are optimised for the web, others for storage, others for data analysis, and others for editing. In the case of OpenXML, there is not even one single complete implementation – because even Microsoft Office12 does not exactly implement OpenXML. There is also no other company with any tool to edit or manage OpenXML documents. Microsoft is trying to make it look like there is broad participation, but dig beneath the surface and it is all funded by one company. The ODF standard is a much healthier place to safeguard all of our data.

I’d like to thank the team at TSF for the work they put into briefing the South African standards committee. I hope that each of you – folks who have read this far, will pick up the phone and contact your own standards body to help them make a smart decision.

The USA, South Africa, China, and other countries will be voting “no”. Let’s not allow heavy lobbying to influence what should be a calm, rational, sensible and ultimately technical discussion. Standards are important, and best defined in transparent and open forums. Pick up the phone!

109 Responses to “Emerging consensus in favour of a unified document format standard?”

  1. Bl@ster Says:

    Maybe it’s too early, but I don’t want a new Microsoft’s standard. Windows is now the standard in OSes, but Linux is better and is taking users now more than yesterday.
    I have to say you some things about the Ubuntu project, i must say them via email or instant messenger, can i have your email address in private? I wrote you a letter, and this letter, after the translation from italian, in english, is more important for me. Please, give me this possibility.
    P.S.: Sorry for my english, but I’m an italian guy, an’ I’m sixteen years old.

  2. Vladimir Says:

    Dear Mark,
    I would like to express my senciere gratefulness to you and all Ubutu developers for the brilliant work. Could you please name the next Ubuntu’s release – Starvin’ Marvin.
    I’m ready to prove my proposal and if you have any questions please advise me.
    Thank you in advance for your reply.

  3. SEO Test Says:

    Dear Mr. Shuttleworth,

    It’s been 3 months since you updated your blog. Please share with us your recent thoughts.

  4. Free Penguin Says:

    Congratulations for “your” Ubuntu 7.10 release, it’s wonderful!

    Free Penguin

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