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Feature: Standards

IBM takes a stand against bad standards

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols on September 24, 2008 (4:00:00 PM)

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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'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, 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."

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the operating system of choice for PCs and 2BSD Unix was what the cool kids used on their computers.

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on IBM takes a stand against bad standards

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So big is IBM...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 24, 2008 04:52 PM
So big is IBM that someone else is probably implementing OOXML for the Lotus ripoff of Open Office at this minute, and will be launching it soon. Trust me, they are so big they could be doing this and not even know.


IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 24, 2008 05:40 PM
IBM ha ha .... Very soon some SING SONG SUNG will buy IBM Global Services.
And as for Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols - he should have been a stand-up comic.


Good for IBM

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 24, 2008 09:25 PM
Well done, IBM.

I see the cynics are out in force, bad-mouthing anything good that comes along.


IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 25, 2008 06:06 PM
GOOD for IBM. Good for all of us.

Now what we need is a big push to require any tax paid agency to adopt ODF or some format fully acessible and usable by free software like OpenOffice.

If Microsoft wants to maintain a proprietary format like .doc or some version of it then that's their business and the private businesses that choose to use .doc can keep right on doing that but schools and gov't offices NEED to rely on a combination of ODF, PDF and other fully open standards.

Furthermore I'd like to see Linux used wherever possible to offset the cost of the store bought stuff. If you hadn't the gov't wants to spend another $700 B of our tax dollars to bailout the fatcats on Wall Street (under the premise of helping mortgage holders who are in danger of defaulting) and we've spent another $700B to conquer the Iraqi gov't to deliver those people from Saddam's doom, and then there is the higher cost of everything including hte coming price hikes from our deflating dollar after this bailout.

In otherwords this administration which is supposed to be all about free markets and smaller gov't is making the other side look positively lean and mean and much less socialist.


IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 25, 2008 06:12 PM
Thanks for the informative article on current file format standards issue.

If one stands back and takes a critical look at how the Linux community supports ODF, does it seem like the level of support is very high?

Is there more than one popular free office product with decent ODF support (popular enough to be on the Distrowatch package list)? Don't many Linux enthusiasts advocate otherwise-capable office alternatives that offer no support? Pointing a finger at one developer is unfair given that popular open source office products generally promote their own unique file format, but at least one ODF Alliance member has a popular office product that does not support ODF.

Reviewers don't mention it when a live desktop Linux CD includes office software that doesn't support ODF... as if it isn't important that office users and potential converts are capable of editing ODF documents.

Critical self examination is difficult in the Linux community, because it's not right to just belittle the current efforts and it's awkward to be complimentary and critical at the same time. Besides, in this particular matter it could be that the support of Linux enthusiasts and desktop distro developers isn't nearly as important as the actions of the IT industry players.

However I wonder if, instead of just looking at ISO and MS actions, maybe some self-examination would result in better support for IBM (and ODF) in this matter.


Re: IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 26, 2008 02:22 PM
Koffice, the KDE office suite, supports the ODF standard, which is its default file format.


IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 25, 2008 07:27 PM
I love your opening remark, Steven. Spot on! Only we should be careful not to stereotype those poor winDOHs people (ref recent lame m$ commercials).

I also love the fact that the meeting is at YALE as opposed to Harvard or Stanford (who are teaching future business execs how to quash open source).

And the cynics' comments... well, I guess some people just have unresolved issues. Too bad for them.

Since the OOXML $candal, I've been promoting the idea that nations and companies that recognize just how corrupt I$O and m$ are take a stand to make I$O irrelevant. No small task, to be sure. But I believe that if enough people take a stand, changes will occur.

Personally, I'm going to start a series of jokes that are a variation on all the typical insult jokes of the past. eg, How many people does it take to make an international standard? Answer. None. You don't need people. All you need is money and you can buy one from I$O.

I'd be interested in other joke ideas.

BTW, this is way better news than the Russian smiley face on Google maps.


IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 25, 2008 08:27 PM is not the only software that supports ODF. Sun StarOffice, NeoOffice, Corel Word Pefect, Google Docs, Lotus Symphony, Abiword, Koffice, and more support it. Check out


Re: IBM takes a stand against bad standards

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 26, 2008 01:12 AM

Tried KOffice 1.6 and you are absolutely correct about ODF file support. Thanks for straightening me out. Poor support in the past, but 1.6 just handled a couple pretty complicated real life files. I must be more careful.


stand for IBM

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 28, 2008 04:12 AM
nothing is impossible ,IBM is good


Doesn't it seem strange to anyone

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 30, 2008 04:28 PM
that a company espousing openness, transparency, and balance in standard-setting is holding a "by invitation only" meeting as a next step?


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