Arnaud's Blog

Opinions on open source, standards, and other things

Can you live with it?

In this latest entry Jason Matusow started the final phase of Microsoft’s pro-OOXML lobbying by saying how much “I really like [ Patick Durusau’s ] comment in his first footnote on the first page:

Granted, I have a number of issues with the current OpenXML proposal but experts do disagree in good faith even within open standards development projects. If a proposal cannot progress until we all agree, then we risk proposals being held hostage to whim and caprice.

Jason then insists on “The fact that there may be issues that remain open and/or in contention does not necessitate the perpetuation of a “no” following the BRM.” and that “[he is] hopeful that the same spirit of standards professionalism exhibited in Patrick’s letter will be reflected across all NSBs.

The sole irony of being lectured on “standards professionalism” by a Microsoft employee could have prompted me to write about this just because, having spent the greater part of my career working on standards, I find the whole OOXML debacle truly appalling and a total disgrace to the standards community. But this is not why I’m writing about it.

The reason I’m posting this entry is because, while I agree that total agreement isn’t always achievable, it is a mistake to conclude that it is therefore unreasonable, or unprofessional, for a National Body (NB) to insist on disagreeing by maintaining a No vote, and that instead they should accept that not all of their requests can be fulfilled so they should let go.

Anybody who’s participated in the development of standards knows that it’s all about compromises. It is a give and take process. Nobody gets exactly what he wants, but nobody gets nothing. In some cases, all agree, in other cases, they don’t. The question then is the level of disagreement you have and how you deal with it.

I think it serves to look at the W3C in this regard, because W3C is an organization that strives to be open and to not favor any particular stakeholder. For this reason it has set as a goal for itself to make decisions by consensus as much as possible.

Consensus does not mean everybody agrees, but it sets the bar higher than having a majority. A practical way to judge whether consensus is reached is not only to ask whether everybody agrees but also whether anybody strongly disagrees. The actual question asked to judge the latter is: “Can you live with it?”

What’s interesting is that the result can be completely different. In a situation where there are two options A and B, where the majority favors A over B but somebody can’t live with A, while everybody can live with B, B is the chosen option.

Getting back to OOXML, the question is not simply whether there are remaining open issues and whether NBs agree or not. The question is the number of issues that remain open, the importance of these issues, and ultimately whether they can live with it or not.

Given that NBs were never given the time necessary to review the whole specification, that the little review that could be done has revealed a low quality level, plus the fact that the BRM is limited to discussing the issues that were raised from partial reviews, no matter what happens at the BRM, there is plenty left for one to say “I can’t live with it”. It would actually be unprofessional not to.


February 21, 2008 - Posted by | standards | , , ,


  1. […] the vote and then wrote down their comments addressing each and every one of those pages? Have a look. Given that NBs were never given the time necessary to review the whole specification, that the […]

    Pingback by Boycott Novell » Some Old and New Irregularities Surrounding the BRM in Geneva | February 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. I have to agree, Arnaud, that MS-OOXML’s ISO march and Microsoft’s convolutions would make Lewis Carroll spew hot coffee all over the morning paper.

    In the past year, there’s been no demonstrated demand for MS-OOXML — from users, businesses, or governments. And even if MS-OOXML becomes certified, you’re left asking to what end? Microsoft itself doesn’t seem passionate about the spec, but only about the politics of getting the certification so as to hang the plaque on the wall. At this point, almost all webware apps are on the verge of integrating ODF without a hitch.

    Comment by zridling | February 22, 2008 | Reply

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