September 24, 2008

IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Author: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Bad standards and standard wars are an all too common part of modern information technology. Now, IBM has announced that it's not going to put up with them anymore. And, yes, Microsoft, IBM is looking at you.

In a statement, Ari Fishkind, public affairs manager for IBM Research's Development and Intellectual Property section, says that "IBM is announcing a new corporate policy governing its participation in the technology standards community. As members of that community, we are formalizing a commitment to behave in a progressive and transparent way as we promote open, high quality standards."

Fishkind says IBM will be judging "how consistent the behavior of standards development organizations are with these ideals will help determine our membership in these groups." Specifically, IBM complained that "the traditional standards community runs the risk of alienating developing countries" and is giving them the "perception that they are being marginalized or ignored outright, and that rules are being changed on the fly."

In addition, Fishkind says, "Intellectual property has also become an issue with the standards process, and needs to become more predictable. Of late, some commercial vendors have encouraged the industry's adoption of their technology for standards, and then have gone on to make patent infringement and royalty claims.

"IBM's new standards policy champions the needs of developing nations and the open source community, and places emphasis on intellectual property fairness, consistency, transparency, and standards quality."

Fishkind says, "This is a deliberative and thoughtful process, and one that we've not entered into lightly. So, it wouldn't be prudent to pre-judge the outcome. Most organizations have nothing to worry about, and in fact there are some very well-run organizations, like the W3C."

But, Fishkind continues, "OOXML (a.k.a. Office Open XML, Microsoft's new document standard) is a recent but striking example of inconsistencies in the standards process that need to be reformed. In the OOXML matter, it's a given that the format was deficient (so much so that it's
not being implemented by its own creators) ... but the real problem was not in the document format, per se -- it was the fissures that it exposed: lack of transparency, acceptance of standards of mediocre or poor quality, lack of system to rate quality, a deep division between the more established community members and those in the developing world, etc."

OOXML was passed by the ISO as a standard in March 2008 despite numerous alleged voting irregularities and accusations that Microsoft had pressured some national standard groups into voting for OOXML. IBM had long been an outspoken Open Document Format (ODF) advocate and an OOXML critic. For several years, the battle between OpenOffice.org's ODF supporters and Microsoft raged through the standards community. Now, IBM is saying that it won't support support standard organizations that allow the kind of shenanigans that went on during OOXML's march to approval.

This isn't just IBM having a case of sour grapes. Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove and the editor of ConsortiumInfo.org, a well-known standards news site, says, "The development and adoption of the new IBM policy clearly follows as a direct result of the very public battle over the adoption of Microsoft's OOXML document format specification. That process saw widespread allegations of abuse in national standards bodies around the world, as well as calls for reform of the ISO/IEC rules under which the process was conducted."

This move has the full-hearted support of Pamela Jones, the editor of intellectual property law news site Groklaw. Jones says, "When such obvious problems are revealed as we saw in the OOXML saga, it would be a crying shame if no one did anything about it. ISO/IEC made it clear that improvement is not to be expected from within. I commend IBM for its stand. It restores my faith that not everyone and everything is corrupt these days."

Updegrove hopes that IBM sticks with its plans. "I think that IBM is very serious about this, and will follow through, in the sense that it will stick by these principles, and have a lot to say about them. I expect that IBM will also actively support pursuing some of the recommendations, given sufficient interest among other stakeholders. I wouldn't hazard a guess about whether it would drop out of any organizations, or if so, which ones. But I expect that new organizations, as they are formed, should pay attention to these principles, not just because they might want IBM as a member, but because they make sense."

Looking ahead, Updegrove says, "The IBM policy details a set of principles that are intended to regulate its participation in standards development, as well as a list of action items that will direct its efforts in seeking the reform of that process. IBM's goals in that pursuit will be to seek greater transparency, openness, and inclusiveness, and also to facilitate the integration of open standards with other important technology developments, such as the implementation of open source software.

"The next step in that process is an invitation-only meeting that will be held under the auspices of Yale University in late November." There, IBM and others will hammer out "a call for greater government regulation of standards activities and the formation of new global organizations to avoid patent ambushes and to raise the bar in standards development. Clearly, these are ambitious and controversial recommendations. But they have also been carefully considered by experts in the field, and tailored to the real needs of the marketplace."

As to what this will mean to ISO and other standards organizations, Updegrove says, "It's worth remembering that companies don't join ISO, IEC, or ISO/IEC JTC 1 -- that's what National Bodies do. IBM is active, however, in many of the working groups and standards development organizations (like INCITS) in which ISO/IEC standards work gets done that may eventually be voted on by the National Bodies. But a huge amount of the IT standards work doesn't get done in those working groups at all, but in consortia."

So, "whether or not ISO/IEC decide to reform their rules will have a big impact on whether they become even less relevant to ISO/IEC standards than they are now. To date, there have not been that many Fast Track (like OOXML) or PAS (like ODF) submissions to ISO/IEC. Given that those processes are now in such disrepute, the numbers of submissions can be expected to decline -- perhaps dramatically -- if ISO/IEC don't clean up their acts," Updegrove says.

Updegrove, who helped formulate IBM's current position, is looking forward to moving these ideas into a real policy that will gain widespread support for true standard reform. However, Updegrove concludes, "At the end of the day, the real test for the IBM initiative will be whether others climb on the bandwagon. I'm hoping they will."

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