Last week I attended a busy week of meetings of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34 in Tokyo. Here’s an update on what is going on in the International Standard document format scene …
(For reference, the meeting resolutions are here).
The DSDL project is drawing to a conclusion, and one of its final parts, Part 11 (“Schema Association”) is now ready to progress to DIS (Draft International Standard) stage, following its passage (without either dissent or comment) through the CD (Committee Draft) stage: congratulations to Project Editor Jirka Kosek!
One of the interesting things about this project is procedural: it is a standard being developed in parallel with the W3C (you can see their version of it here). I encourage everybody to take a look and report any comments to our mailing list, firstname.lastname@example.org.
e-book markets are taking off worldwide, and the dominant format is emerging to be EPUB, standardized by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) – a consortium. Although there is an International Standard in this space - IEC 62448 - it is fair to say, I think, that in the market, EPUB has clearly won. IEC 62448 is up for revision but technically it appears to lack some key features National Bodies expect to see in International Standards – notably comprehensive support for BIDI (bi-directional text) as used by many Middle Eastern writing systems. I am sure National Bodies (including the UK’s) will be monitoring this space very closely: in 2010 it is surely not acceptable to produce International (International!) Standards which ignore large portions of this planet’s population.
Following some behind-the-scenes discussion between IDPF and SC 34 people, it has been agreed that it could be worthwhile exploring whether and how the EPUB format could undergo International Standardization in SC 34. EPUB builds on some SC 34 technologies (notably DSDL), makes use of ZIP, and can find a suitable group of experts in SC 34 with a broad range of documentation and publishing experience. To progress matters, a resolution was agreed to ballot whether an exploratory study should be initiated:
SC 34 establishes an ad hoc group on EPUB of IDPF with the following terms of reference:
- to discuss with IDPF whether their EPUB work should be standardized at SC 34 and to present a plan for such standardization and any other recommendations to the next SC 34 Plenary in 2011 March.
- to determine the major stakeholders concerned with EPUB standardization and propose additional liaisons that would enable these stakeholders to be represented in any standardization process.
Membership is open to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 34 P and O members, liaison organizations, and subgroup representatives.
SC 34 appoints Dr. Makoto MURATA (Japan) and Dr. Yong-Sang CHO (Korea) as the Co-Conveners of this ad hoc group.
Personally, I think that since IDPF has done such a good job on EPUB already it would be a shame to do anything that would risk that ongoing goodness, and that some kind of parallel standardization activity with SC 34 would be appropriate – perhaps in the same kind of way that SC 2 and the Unicode Consortium keep ISO/IEC 10646 and Unicode in parallel. We shall see …
Back in March I blogged about how SC 34 had opened a ballot on standardizing aspects of the “Zip” format. The proposal failed, with 10 countries voting against starting work (11 countries were in favour on this question and 10 abstained – so the necessary super-majority was not obtained).
Nevertheless in discussion in Tokyo it emerged that National Bodies were broadly in favour of an eventual “Zip” standard (or at least a standards-compatible specification) of some kind, and that it was more the nature of the proposal, rather than its aim, that was in question. Since I was the person who drafted the proposal, this is in large part mea culpa!
One of the chief reasons why the ballot failed was U.S. corporate influence. With IBM spearheading the effort, and the likes of Oracle and Microsoft generally going along with it, committee members in several countries were – I hear – energized to oppose the proposal. One particular concern was that PKWare, Inc. had had no opportunity to have input in the process. This concern is certainly reasonable, and there is no doubt that PKWare is quite a major stakeholder. But “Zip” is bigger even than that since it sits at the heart of some many specifications (e.g. ODF, OOXML and EPUB) and is in the foundations of many other technologies (e.g. Java, Linux … and Windows). So, to gather the widest possible stakeholder input going forward to a possible second try at standardizing “Zip”, SC 34 resolved to embark upon a study period:
SC 34 accepts the WG 1 recommendation contained in SC 34 N 1494 to initiate a study period with aim of establishing a firmer rationale for standardization of aspects of the “Zip” format.
SC 34 asks WG 1 that a report be submitted in time for consideration at the SC 34 meetings in Prague in 2011-03 and that time be allocated to this activity during the WG 1 meeting in Beijing in 2010-12.
SC 34 instructs its Secretariat to issue a call for participation in this Study Period to SC 34 national and liaison member bodies.
SC 34 requests the SC 34 chairman bring this activity to the attention of members of JTC 1, and other SC chairs, at the upcoming JTC 1 Plenary in Belfast.
One delegate told me the “Zip” vote had engendered some very heated arguments, more intense than those even of the OOXML wars – and many experts in SC 34 take the high politics already in evidence as an indication that there may be “unknown unknowns” surrounding this format. In my view, “Zip” is simply too important for it to have continuing IPR/technical uncertainties and I would like to see those put to rest by the standardization process.
From Monday to Wednesday in WG 4 work continued on the OOXML Standard: primarily fixing defects (and in particular fixing problems with date handling – a fix important enough to warrant its own amendments). One positive development is that some more large-scale thinking about textual reform has started, with drafting of a possible revised version of Part 3 (“Markup Compatibility and Extensibility” aka MCE) underway. And for the gigantic Part 1 (5,572 pages) some experimentation removing redundant tables of elements has shown we can achieve a 10% decrease in size, and we can lose several hundred pages by moving the tutorial material of the “Primer” out of the text. Ultimately it is this kind of thoroughgoing re-organisation and re-writing (currently still just an experiment) that will redeem the text.
Can there be redemption for Microsoft, whose Office 2010 product has now hit the shelves using the deprecated transitional variant of OOXML and a load of Microsoft extensions? Well, in time, maybe …
There has been much discussion in WG 4 how to standardize Microsoft’s extensions which – although they use the extension mechanisms described by the IS 29500 – are not themselves described in any standard. They’re currently documented on MSDN. How should they be standardized? In a multi-part Standard? in a registry? or what? Ultimately WG 4 concluded we should do nothing – we are not hearing any market demand for standardizing Microsoft’s extensions and so we will wait. Of course this means that as Microsoft adds more and more extensions to subsequent versions of Office the proportion of it described by the text of IS 29500 will diminish. We shall have to wait and see what the market thinks about that. Personally, I feel it is critical that procurers of OOXML-based suites pay careful attention to this aspect of MS Office and (I have written this before) know that MS Office 2007 – not 2010 – is the only version which (modulo bugs/defects) conforms to OOXML unextended. It is my guess that future large-scale procurers of MS Office may want to specify which extensions they want (maybe none), and I would like to see the conformance language of OOXML beefed-up making such procurement specifications easier.
Following the announcement of Microsoft’s plans that future versions of MS Office will use OOXML Strict, it was interesting to speculate how this leap was going to be achieved. One particularly horrid suggestion was that MS Office should effectively continue to use OOXML Transitional (but within a Strict wrapper) by relying on some new “extensions” that contained deprecated Transitional markup. On the other hand, using such extensions purely to provide graceful degradation for legacy applications seemed like an excellent idea. One of the key benefits of a move to OOXML Strict is that developers targeting future MS Office versions will be able (if it supports Strict properly) to ignore the 1,500 pages of nastiness that is the Transitional format. That would be a definite win.
For fun, during the week, I used SoftMaker’s office suite, which claims support for OOXML. Rather than lengthen even further an already over-long posting and save a report on this software for a later posting …
WG 6 (concerned with ODF) met for a teleconference at 7am on Thursday and the convenor reported on this, and other ODF-related matters, later that day.
The chief activity in WG 6 at the moment is the creation of an amendment to ISO/IEC 26300 (the International Standard version of ODF) so that it aligns properly with ODF 1.1. The result of this activity will be that the latest version of ODF will be in sync between JTC 1 and OASIS. The drafting work for this is nearly done, with some final tests and tweaks being made to ensure everything has been squared between the variants.
An interesting issue has arisen with the submission to WG 6 by the Dutch of a proposed amendment to ODF which would improve its change tracking to the point where they judged it could be acceptable for government use. Now, the flaky/incomplete nature of change tracking in ODF and its office suites has been something of an elephant in the room ever since Microsoft’s Doug Mahugh blogged about it, and I hear that Microsoft have used some nifty demonstrations of OpenOffice’s change tracking to quell the enthusiasm of large procuring bodies who were considering stepping out of line and switching away from MS Office. Indeed, I believe OASIS’s own Open Document Format Interoperability and Conformance (OIC) TC has a test-case which demonstrates interop problems with change tracking.
So one would have thought that the ODF TC – if they had not done it already – would have leapt at the Dutch proposal as a way to close an important competitive gap … But no, from the minutes of a recent meeting we learn that “the change tracking proposals is a topic for ODF-Next rather than ODF 1.2”; and so it has been deferred to ODF-Next (i.e. two versions of ODF into the future). As I understand it, the ODF TC wishes to meet a certain deadline for release of ODF 1.2, which has already been a fair while in drafting. In a little Twitter exchange I had with a co-chair of the ODF TC (Rob Weir) on this topic he tweeted that ODF perfection was not required. I leave it to readers of this blog to judge whether a desire for solid comprehensive change-tracking is really the same as an unrealistic demand for “perfection” (which, I agree, would be unreasonable).
I can certainly imagine ISO and IEC members being very reluctant to pass a version of ODF (should 1.2 ever come to JTC 1) that does not have a convincing story to tell about change-tracking.
The week of meetings finished with a 1½ day BRM (ballot resolution meeting) for DIS 14297, also known as “UOML (Unstructured Operation Markup Language) Part 1 Version 1.0” (get it here). Since the process used was an accelerated procedure (called PAS, which is practically the same as a Fast Track) and since the DIS ballot had failed, the meeting had many potential parallels with the OOXML BRM of 2008, and so I was particularly interested to attend – not this time as convenor, but out of the firing-line as a member of the UK delegation.
The problem with UOML 1.0 is, in nearly every aspect, very poor quality – it is almost gibberish, and obviously so to anybody who cares even to glance at it. It makes OOXML look like something written by Bertrand Russell. How the OASIS members could have approved it as a standard boggles the mind; how the OASIS Board could have okayed it for PAS submission boggles the mind; and how it nearly passed its JTC 1 ballot boggles the mind. Fortunately, just enough National Bodies voted against the DIS to make it fail its ballot, and so on Friday afternoon a group of us found ourselves in a room with 139 comments to resolve. After triage we found that left us with 10 minutes per comment – compared to the OOXML BRM this was luxury!
Many aspects of the UOML BRM were familiar: voting on comments in batches, NBs feeling grumpy about having compromised (rather than really good) dispositions; other NBs feeling grumpy about lack of time. Credit must go to the new consulting project editor Joel Marcey, who had valiantly deployed his skills to make very substantial improvements to the text prior to the meeting. And credit must go to Paul Cotton (“The convenor’s convenor”) whose in-the-trenches experiences of chairmanship (SQL, HTML 5, ...) were in evidence to ensure a productive and good-natured meeting.
But in the end it just was not enough. All the dispositions were resolved one way or the other, but a number of NBs had rejected proposals and there was a general perception (by my reckoning) that the standard remained unimplementable in a conformant manner.
So yet again we have an instance of a poorly-drafted standard coming into a process that finds it very difficult to take the strain when there are a reasonably large number of NB comments. I can imagine accelerated standardization working well when a standard is small and perfectly formed but when a standard is large and/or buggy (and when NBs bother to read it), trouble is almost bound to ensue. Although the JTC 1 Directives have been recently revised they do very little to address this particular problem of the BRM being potentially a crazy-time in which major changes are carried out in a very compressed time period. Reform in this area is still badly needed, I believe.
And away from the committees …
Tokyo was quite an experience: extremely humid and hot most of the time, but with one day of torrential rain as we experienced the outer bands of a passing typhoon. For once I was glad to be able to spend most of the time in air-conditioned meeting rooms, even if this meant there were disappointingly few opportunities for photography.
Food was a highlight, especially since Murata-san guided us to a number of truly outstanding eating experiences including a sashimi banquet, a more rustic meal starring yakitori chicken, and a meal which built to a climax of tuna shabu-shabu. All this was washed down with a variety of rice-based, sugar cane-based and potato-based wine and spirits. Yumsk! (and, hic!)
[Update: my pictures from the week are here.]