SC 34 Meetings, Prague - Day 1

Digs

SC 34 have a week of meetings in Prague. Today only WG 1 was meeting and I – for the first time – was convening it; an honour, and a slightly daunting one at that.

It was, though, very reassuring to feel that, for the first time since the OOXML days, things were returning to normal, and that the structural changes SC 34 has put in place has allowed WG 1 to return to its true purpose for XML infrastructure technologies: principally schema languages.

It was also great to see wide International participation, with experts in attendance from Canada, China, The Czech Republic, France, Japan, South Africa the United Kingdom.

We had a full agenda and the meeting day varied from some in-the-trenches technical work (prinipally on 19757-8 - DSRL) to some more strategic topics. A couple of these are worth a special mention.

XML 1.0 Fifth Edition

The first is the issue of what to do about XML 1.0 Fifth Edition. The particular revision has caused consternation in some parts of the XML community, by breaking compatibility with earlier versions of XML. XML titans such as Tim Bray, James Clark and David Carlisle have lined up to condemn the move, and Elliotte Rusty Harold has gone so far as to write that "The W3C Core Working group has broken faith with the XML community", and that,

Perhaps the time has come to say that the W3C has outlived its usefulness. Really, has there been any important W3C spec in this millennium that's worth the paper it isn't printed on? [...] I think we might all be better off if the W3C had declared victory and closed up shop in 2001.

Which, if nothing else, shows that when standards get passed which people don't like, the poor standards bodies get it in the neck — a phenomenon regular readers of this blog will have come across before.

So, the practical question is: what do we do about this in SC 34? If we have some Standards which refer to the Fifth edition, and others which refer to earlier editions, then there is a danger those standards are not interoperable, which flies in the face of JTC 1 requirements.

The initial mood around the table seemed to be that politics could be avoided by adopting an approach of "user beware". We would allow standards to mix references to the different versions and if implementations blew up on users then they'd know who to blame: the W3C.

On further reflection, however, consensus seems to be homing in on the idea that it would be better to keep all of our references pointing to XML 1.0 Fourth Edition for now, and to wait until the XML technologies around the Fifth edition matured (W3C has some work to do making XML 5Ed compatibile with other W3C technologies). Then we (and thus users) would be able to embrace 5Ed more enthusiastically; for amid the turmoil it does provide some features (such as a bigger repertoire of name characters) that are wanted by some of our non-Western users.

Schema Copyright

Another interesting issue surrounded schema copyright. When a user downloads a free ISO or IEC standard from ITTF's list, they are bound by a EULA which, inter alia, stipulates:

Under no circumstances may the electronic file you are licensing be copied, transferred, or placed on a network of any sort without the authorization of the copyright owner.

Now this raises a number of questions, but the immediate one facing WG 1 is the issue of schemas. When a standard contains a schema, it is perfectly reasonable for a user to want to extract that and use it for validation – which in most scenarios definitely will require it to be "transferred, or placed on a network".

Following an exchange with Geneva it became apparent that what we should be doing is to include a separate license with the schema, which derogates from the EULA to grant the necessary permissions. Geneva suggested a BSD-esque licence but suggested SC 34 should sensibly innovate around it:

The following permission notice and disclaimer shall be included in all copies of this XML schema ("the Schema"), and derivations of the Schema:
 
Permission is hereby granted, free of charge in perpetuity, to any person obtaining a copy of the Schema, to use, copy, modify, merge and distribute free of charge, copies of the Schema for the purposes of developing, implementing, installing and using software based on the Schema, and to permit persons to whom the Schema is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:
 
THE SCHEMA IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SCHEMA OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SCHEMA.
 
In addition, any modified copy of the Schema shall include the following
notice:

THIS SCHEMA HAS BEEN MODIFIED FROM THE SCHEMA DEFINED IN ISO xxxxx-y, AND SHOULD NOT BE INTERPRETED AS COMPLYING WITH THAT STANDARD.
 

Already the experts are starting to hack this around and one well-supported thought was to have it submitted to the OSI to ensure it was compatible with any conceivable FOSS scenario. If any reader has expertise in this area, I'd be very interested to hear from them...

SC 34 Meetings, Okinawa – Day 5 and Summary

Okinawan Entertainment
Singer Azusa Miyagi from the Okinawan pop duo Tink Tink

Day 5 found us all attending a joint session of the working groups to sort out more administrative details and share the recommendations made by WG 5. Anybody interested in seeing the state of play in WG 4’s work can consult the WG 4 web site, where progress on defect correction can be tracked.

Overall this has been I think a successful meeting: the two new working groups are up and running and their work is well underway. There was perhaps the occasional trace of residual angst overhanging from last year: NBs are keen to assert their sovereignty in the decision making process, and the Ecma delegates are keen to be assured the JTC 1 processes can deliver the mechanisms and timeliness needed to keep IS29500 in shape. In general however, there has been a decided “unclenching” as delegates warmed to the (let’s face it) sometime drudgery of maintaining XML document formats. This was all helped by the exceptional hospitality shown by JISC and ITSCJ in hosting the meetings, and in particular by the efforts of WG 4 convenor Murata Makoto. Whenever one wanted to know where to eat, what to drink, or where the prettiest singers could be found, Murata-san was your man!

It was great also to work with Jesper Lund Stocholm, who has also been covering these meetings on his blog. It would be better still if more countries followed Denmark, and more companies followed the shining example of CIBER, in supplying experts for assisting in this important work.

It was something of a shock coming from the 23°C sunshine of Okinawa to freezing snow-bound Britain. And also a shock to review the amount of standards work piling up to be done before the next SC 34 meetings in Prague: defects to be filed, maintenance agreements to be hammered out, agendas to write, ballots to vote on and proposals to draft. I am expecting the Prague meeting to be particularly vibrant, not least since it is preceded by XML Prague 2009. I have not been to an XML Prague before, but have heard only good things about it. Certainly, the programme looks fascinating (though I make no claims for my own presentation). It certainly seems that Prague is going to be the centre of the world for XML-heads everywhere in late March …

SC 34 Meetings, Okinawa - Day 2

Sea Snake for Supper
A soup of sea snake, pig's trotter and seaweed

Another day of work in the hotel: which is a shame since the weather outside has been even warmer and very sunny. This morning was mostly given over to a meeting (via Skype™) with OASIS people to discuss how the future maintenance of ODF might be handled. This was a very constructive exchange, and while there are many details to work out over the coming weeks, my personal impressions was that all parties felt confident a good solution was in reach, and that the era of megaphone diplomacy on this topic was behind us all.

The afternoon was given over to drafting meeting notes, further readings of the JTC 1 Directives, and preparations for the WG meetings tomorrow. The coming-together of a number of people interested in both OOXML and ODF has led to some interesting lobby discussions over future directions for these standards. The groovy (but as yet unimplemented) new feature of RDF in ODF for metadata capture has certainly caught the imagination: might an NB propose that this feature is added to OOXML via an amendment? Conversely, the fact that a whole bunch of spreadsheet functions have been standardised in ISO/IEC 29500 (OOXML) potentially saves ODF a lot of work/pages. Certainly any new International Standard version of ODF would need a cast-iron reason to eschew borrowing any of these existing function definitions. Harmonious times may lie ahead …

In the evening Murata Makoto (who seems determined to test our Western sensibilities) took us for a meal of sea snake: a rare Okinawan delicacy. The charming old lady proprietor of the restaurant had been cooking our snake all day (we had had to place our orders yesterday). She explained that traditionally the sea snake was the food of kings, not because of rarity but because of the difficulty of preparation. Once the snake is caught it is smoked, turning it black. The snake is then boiled for one or two days (before domestic ovens this was a real chore) and at some point the many tiny bones in it have to be removed by hand.

And the taste? Well, it was certainly not like chicken. Quite chewy (so much muscle!), and a little like a gamier version of smoked mackerel. Yumsk.

SC 34 Meetings, Okinawa - Day 1

The Ruins of Nakagusuku
The Ruins at Nakagusuku

Today (apart from visiting the Ruins of Nakagusuku Castle), was mostly given over to a discussion of JTC 1 Procedure. The JTC 1 Directives collectively make an ever-surprising document — just when you think you've got your head around some point, a new paragraph is discovered which calls it all into question. When combined with jet lag, this can be heavy work.

I have been following the tweets of some fellow SC 34 people as they make their ways from various corners of the globe to join the Okinawa meetings. I expect tomorrow will see the influx of even more standards wonks into the hotel. Already there is a certain amount of "geeking out" going on. Over the breakfast table the hot topic of discussion concerned marking-up pagination decisions in documents from systems which flowed footnotes over multiple pages. And at lunch there was much debate over whether editors should prefer using "shall" to "has to" in standards documents (consensus: non-native english speakers find "shall" easier to understand).

SC 34 Meetings, Okinawa - Day 0

Okinawan Bloom
It is nice to get away from the freezing drizzle of the UK,
to the milder climes and bright sunshine of Okinawa.

I am in Okinawa for a week of ISO/IEC JTC 1 SC 34 meetings. To be precise, these are not meetings of SC 34 itself (there will be no plenary), rather the week will be taken up with two activities by parts of SC 34:

  • On Monday and Tuesday, a team picked by our Chairman will meet to discuss the maintenance procedures for ODF among themselves, and with OASIS representatives.
  • On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday SC 34’s two new working groups, WG 4 and WG 5, will meet.

These in turn will generate plenty of input for SC 34’s full Prague meeting in March.

ODF Maintenance

I have already written about the background to this activity, both the issues caused by the current lack of agreement on how maintenance should proceed, and JTC 1’s instruction to SC 34 from Nara that SC 34 and OASIS should develop a document specifying “detailed operation of joint maintenance procedures”.

At this stage the negotiations are completely informal, and expected simply to offer an opportunity for all parties to have an open discussion aimed at increasing the level of mutual understanding to a point where they are ready to start working together in earnest on drafting the agreement text. For SC 34, this text will need to be presented to members in time for consideration in Prague, at which meeting it will seek SC 34’s blessing to be passed up to JTC 1 for further consideration.

WG 4 & WG 5

Okinawa will see the first two meetings of our two new working groups, WG 4 (dedicated to maintenance of ISO/IEC 29500, aka OOXML), and WG 5 (dedicated to document file format interoperability). Both groups are expected to meet face-to-face more frequently than the rest of SC 34, and to make heavy use of the newfangled teleconferencing technology that JTC 1 has recently embraced.

WG4’s business in the short term will be largely taken up with correcting defects in the 29500 text (in JTC 1 parlance, producing corrigenda) in response to reported defects. A number of these have been submitted already, by Japan, the UK and Ecma themselves. The UK has a large number on additional ones brewing and is likely to submit a second batch in February.

WG 5’s short-term work is to concentrate on the Technical Report (a more informal document that an International Standard) being drafted which sets out some of the considerations when mapping between ISO/IEC 26300 (ODF 1.0) and ISO/IEC 29500 (OOXML). I’m wondering too whether there will be any moves in this WG to garner support for new work in this area. Now that the dust has settled over document formats themselves, even non XML experts are beginning to grok that by themselves these standards don’t actually give us that much, but are a useful foundation on which to work. “Interoperability” in particular requires so much more than simply having standardised document formats. I await developments in this space with interested anticipation …