Sunday, February 11, 2007

OOXML and Open Standards

We can trust Microsoft to be always up to some interesting tricks. They recently tried to get members of the International Standards Organization to rush through approving a 6000 page document on Office Open XML (OOXML) and submit their comments on the same in 30 days! What does one say to this? My colleague Tom Rabon, from our US office put it best when he said that the longer a dead fish stays out of the freezer, the more it stinks.

Microsoft's urgency in putting the sheen of an "open standard" on OOXML may be understandable but for a soveriegn country like India, standards are not something to be decided on a whim. Standards are the foundation on which we build our National IT infrastructure and we need to be careful that we build them on open standards that are free of royalties and other encumberances. If data is stored in proprietary standards, India could end up paying a toll for accessing its own national data.

The Bureau of Indian Standards, which votes on India's behalf at ISO said that they have not received the documents and therefore could not vote! [1]

The ODF Alliance requested ISO to resend the documents with a copy to us. We built up political pressure on BIS to request more time to study the document. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) sent a strongly worded letter to the IT Minister and other policy makers, pointing out that there was no need for an alternative document format since Open Document Format was already accepted as a standard by ISO after a four-year long review process. The Kerala Chief Minister sent a letter stating that Kerala had already decided to adopt open standards like ODF and did not see merit in a single vendor controlled "standard" like OOXML. The Free Software Foundation of India also supported the move for a more thorough review of OOXML.

If OOXML does benefit India, great. But, we are a democracy and in the spirit of a democracy, let there be a debate around OOXML and its merits and demerits. Above all is the question, "Is OOXML beneficial to India in the long run?" Standards that are decided behind closed doors stink and do not merit the title of "open standards."

BIS finally voted on the issue and was among the 19 countries that submitted their vote by the deadline of 5th February 2007. What they submitted has not been shared with us yet. Hopefully, they have asked for more time to review the document. That is the least they can do.

A few days later, 8th February, to be exact, I got a call from a head hunter, asking if I would be interested in joining Microsoft. thanks for the compliment, but the answer is "No. Thanks."

[1] Reminds me of a scene from the eternal classic BBC series, Yes Minister

Hon. Minister Jim Hacker: (in an aggravated tone) "What do you mean, 'we are looking into the matter'?

Derek Fowlds, Secretary to Jim Hacker: (in an apologetic tone) "It means, 'we have lost the files and are searching for it.'"