IBM Threatens to Leave Standards Bodies

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IBM is threatening to leave organizations that set standards for software interoperability because of concerns that their processes are not always fair.

IBM published a new set of guidelines it plans to follow, which include encouraging standards bodies to have rules to protect their decisions from "undue influence," a clear reference to competitor Microsoft.

IBM was one of the most vocal opponents of a file format created by Microsoft and approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as an international standard earlier this year.

Part of the specification, called Office Open XML, is used in Microsoft's latest Office 2007 productivity suite but has yet to be fully implemented by either Microsoft or other software vendors. OOXML is a rival to OpenDocument Format (ODF), also an international standard used in office suites such as and StarOffice.

Microsoft submitted OOXML to the ISO under a so-called Fast Track process, which some opponents believed was too rushed and resulted in a poor-quality standard. Many countries and technical experts questioned the need for another standard document format.

A draft standard OOXML was approved by ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC 1) in a vote that closed March 29. Brazil, India, South Africa and Venezuela filed appeals over its approval, but the appeals were dismissed in July. The appeals centered in part on alleged irregularities in the ISO's voting process.

In August, the ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) approved the publication of ISO/IEC DIS 29500, the official name for the OOXML specification.

IBM's new guidelines for how it will participate in standards organizations was born out of the company's frustration with OOXML, said Andrew Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove in Boston who studies standards and intellectual-property issues.

IBM's guidelines were formulated from recommendations from a six-week, Web-based consultation held in May and June. It involved more than 70 experts who discussed how the creation of standards could be improved. Updegrove also participated.

IBM's guidelines are based on its belief that open standards increase the range of software products that are interchangeable. Standards prevent one software vendor from capturing a large part of a market by locking users into a proprietary format and limiting their ability to easily switch to another product.

Microsoft has long been accused of dominating the market for office productivity programs due to its use of closed file formats. Microsoft changed course, however, and submitted its OOXML format to become an international standard, which means other vendors could implement OOXML in their products.

But OOXML was criticized for being unnecessarily complex. Also, Microsoft was accused of pressuring countries to support the standard, which left companies such as IBM fuming. IBM is a long-time backer of ODF.

IBM's new guidelines are intended to pressure organizations such as the ISO and ECMA, an industry-led standards organization, into rethinking their procedures.

That change is not likely to come soon, since IT standards are just a small part of what ISO does, Updegrove said. It sets standards ranging from specifications for fertilizers to clothing sizes to pharmaceuticals.

But IBM is a big player and participates in more national standards bodies and organizations that perhaps any other tech company, Updegrove said.

Even if IBM made good on its threat, withdrawing from a standards body wouldn't cause one to fall apart, Updegrove said. IBM would also suffer, he said.

"If they decided to drop out of ECMA, that kicks away from them that ability to push its favored standard through the system," Updegrove said.

Representatives from the ISO and ECMA could not immediately be reached for comment.

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