Ecma - a case study for vendor capture

A small network of people of ECMA International dominated the whole ISO process around OOXML while technical experts of national ISO members were impeded by committee stuffing, rules bending and political intervention and the general restrictions of the revamped ISO/IEC fast-track process.


Let us consider ECMA International1. ECMA International is an entity that has an A Liaision access to the ISO JTC1 fast-track process, which means that they can get their standards approved in the same way a national standard would be rubberstamped on the ISO level.

Only few organisations have A liaision status. ECMA provides ISO fast-track as a commercial service for its clients. The customer in the case of Open XML was Microsoft who wanted an ISO stamp for its format. First ECMA standardised the format as ECMA-376, then it submitted the 6000 pages to ISO. Prior to the submission of the OOXML standard Jan van den Beld contributed to the change of ISO/IEC fast-track procedures. In fact the new version of the directive with revamped fast-track rules was explicitly credited to him as a contributor to procedural ISO reform.

On the right you find a picture of Jan van den Beld, back then general secretary of ECMA international who received the 2000 pages from Microsoft represented by its employee Jean Paoli (center). Jean Paoli is probably best known for taking the Microsoft credit for the standardization of XML. The other person with the beard is Adam Farquhar from the British Library, chair of ECMA TC 45. You also find the picture on the right in Adam Farquhar's May 07 presentation which advocates for OOXML.

As a coincidence this news report from November 2005 about the Open XML process mentions that Microsoft supports a digitization project of the British Library:

The British Library's Farquahr said: "I think that it is significant that Microsoft is taking this step. Microsoft is listening to customers who want to ensure that they have full access to the content that they have created. The route that they are following—standards-based followed by standardization—is a very positive one, and I anticipate that the resulting standardized formats will have excellent preservation properties. There are many alternate routes that they could have taken!" … Early in November, Microsoft announced a project to digitize 100,000 rare and out-of-print books from the British Library collection. …Farquhar says that that effort is not directly related to the Open XML announcement"

Jan van den Beld is quoted in the Microsoft press release from 2005:

“We are pleased that Microsoft and its partners are making this submission to Ecma International,” said Jan van den Beld, secretary general of Ecma International. “Our members around the globe pride themselves in their ability to drive progress and consensus on important technologies.”

Just as our predecessors stewarded the development of the national published archive over the past 250 years, the British Library is committed to preserving and providing access to the U.K.’s digital heritage,” said Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture at the British Library. “We expect that establishing Microsoft Office Open XML as an open standard will substantially enhance our ability to achieve this. It’s an important step forward for digital preservation and will help us fulfill the British Library’s core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come.”

Now that the format is approved by ISO, ECMA TC 45 sent out a press release with comments:

“ISO/IEC approval maximizes the ability of independent software vendors such as NextPage to deliver solutions to customers who have existing binary documents,” said Tom Ngo, CTO of NextPage and member of Ecma TC45. “As the sole representative of ISVs on TC45, we worked hard to foster interoperability and conformance conditions that help to level the competitive playing field. This approval puts control of Open XML in the hands of the international community.”

The ECMA committee work on Open XML can be described by the words of Jeff:

21:53 < jdub> MS delivered OOXML to ECMA as-is
21:54 < jdub> MS make the decisions about changing it
21:54 < jdub> we're drilling for docs

The drilling resulted in a 6000 pages premature standard document of Open XML that was sent on the ISO fast-track. In September 2007 Iso national members disapproved the adoption of the format and submitted 3500+ comments.

When Alex Brown the convenor called for the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) in Geneva to make changes to the text, ECMA International sent the following delegates as ECMA observers:

Mrs. Caroline ARMS US Library of Congress
Mr. Adam FARQUHAR British Library
Mr. Brian JONES Microsoft
Dr. Tom NGO NextPage
Mr. Jean PAOLI Microsoft Corporation

As the BRM, composed of all participating national ISO members, was only given five days to resolve the 3500 comment, and discuss 40+ changes, the BRM decided to bulk approve the ECMA dispositions prepared by the Ecma editor Rex Jaeschke (Microsoft) who is also tasked to become the responsible editor for maintenance of the ISO standard IS 29500. The controversy over what happened at the BRM was discussed here. The imaginary rules that mandated a one week BRM, and the forcing of a vote despite the lack of a final text, none of those are in the Directives. A "controversial" procedure to say the least.

ECMA's former general secretary Jan van den Beld was in a building on the opposite side of the Geneva conference center where the BRM had a hard time, now retired from Ecma and employed as a CompTIA lobbyist for Microsoft. And the company Griffin Brown, of which the BRM convenor Alex Brown is the director, sent out a press release 13 March 08 celebrating the 10th anniversary of XML:

Recent moves by Microsoft to standardise its Office products around XML file formats merely confirms that most valuable business data in the future will be stored in XML. … Alex Brown is convenor of the ISO/IEC DIS 29500 Ballot Resolution Process, and has recently been elected to the panel to advise the British Library on how to handle digital submission of journal articles.

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