Respect for open standards? You decide

I was a bit surprised to see the news recently that Open Forum Europe is working with some large US-based technology vendors to put on an event in the same building as the upcoming BRM for DIS 29500, on the same dates as the BRM. An anti-BRM, if you will. This event has absolutely nothing to do with the standards process, and appears to have been hastily thrown together to coincide with the BRM. They've even sent emails to national bodies involved in the BRM, encouraging the BRM delegates to attend their event.

Wow. If this isn't an attempt to exert undue influence on the standards process, it's hard to imagine what is.

Who are these people?

A logical question to ask is "who's putting on this event, and why?" At a glance, it looks like the major participants are Open Forum Europe, IBM and Google. (See here for details.)

I'm not familiar with Open Forum Europe, so I did some looking around. It seems that they've been very active in lobbying for ODF legislative mandates, and have been consistently anti-choice when it comes to document formats.

I also came across a blog post by BRM convenor Alex Brown, in which he noted his concerns about the distraction of the anti-BRM. In the comment thread there, Alan Bell (who writes regularly for anti-Open XML lobbying organizations) said that the members of Open Forum Europe "do indeed have a position on the subject of DIS29500, they don't want it as an international standard."

Later in the same thread, OFE's chief executive Graham Taylor defended the event, saying "We have planned the Briefing so there is no conflict with BRM schedules," but apparently something has changed. The schedule for the OFE event has grown, and it now shows several days of activities including breakfast events, lunch events, evening events, and all-day seminars. To minimize distraction for the BRM delegates, they've even scheduled a free evening cruise on Lake Geneva!

Mr. Taylor goes on to offer this explanation of the goals of the anti-BRM (which he copied word-for-word from OFE's web site):

" ... we have been strong proponents of a single Open Document Exchange Format. We have been supportive of the continuing development of ODF, and we have grave concerns on both OOXML itself, the market need claimed (and the resulting market confusion and costs), and the fast track process undertaken by Ecma/ISO in respect of it. The BRM only covers one aspect of those concerns and we will continue to work to ensure that the full picture is adequately debated and understood at all levels."

So if I'm following him correctly, he's concerned that the BRM has too narrow of a focus (i.e., merely discussing the technical comments and proposed dispositions, as required by the open standards process), and OFE is going to helpfully "work to ensure that the full picture is adequately debated."

Another participant in the anti-BRM is IBM's Bob Sutor, who will have a busy schedule as a panelist and workshop leader in several of the events making up the anti-BRM. IBM's agenda regarding the DIS 29500 standards process is pretty clear, and Sutor himself has said that he believes ISO "needs reform" on his blog recently. In that same post, he offers this stern warning to those attending the BRM:

Delegations need to decide now how they will pay for the costs of traveling to the meeting. Rest assured that this will be tightly scrutinized. That is, I expect the international community will demand a full accounting of who paid for what and exactly what the relationship is to the delegate.

Well, Bob, you can "rest assured" that many people are interested in knowing more about the anti-BRM, too. Who's paying the bills? For example, which of the sponsors of this event are paying for the cruise on Lake Geneva? And what is the position of those sponsors regarding the international standards process that's taking place across the hall? Neutral and disinterested? Or clearly and consistently biased regarding the work of the BRM?

Who's the target audience?

Another logical question to ask is "who do they expect to attend this event?" Let's face it, a quickly thrown together event in Geneva in the winter, during a week when the city is already busy with trade shows and other events, isn't going to attract many attendees from far away. (If you've talked to any of the BRM delegates who are trying to find hotel rooms, you know what I'm talking about.)

The target audience for this event, though, seems to be people who will already be in Geneva: the BRM delegates. They've marketed the event to BRM delegates (via email to national bodies), and they even have a special page of information for BRM delegates, which offers these thoughts:

"National Bodies will need to base their final voting on OOXML not just on the technical outcomes of the BRM, but also on a much wider set of non-technical issues ... BRM delegates are therefore welcome, and indeed encouraged, to take full advantage of the OFE programme ... Throughout Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, OFE is arranging for key experts to be available out of BRM hours (over breakfast, lunch, breaks, evening) for private one-to-one informal meetings."

If I understand that correctly, they're saying, in essence, "if you BRM delegates are confused about how to best represent the needs of your country, we have experts standing by who can tell you what to think."


Is the anti-BRM really an appropriate activity that shows respect for open standards? I'd hate to think that we're entering an age when it will be seen as perfectly normal for vendors opposed to a particular standard to schedule events at the same location where international standards bodies are working, and offer to counsel the participants between working sessions. As I said earlier, if that's not a deliberate attempt to exert undue influence, I can't imagine what is.

Meanwhile, the BRM next door will provide an interesting counterpoint: a true debate, with countries being represented instead of corporations, all points of view included, and discussions focused on technical details instead of rumors and innuendo. There are 87 countries that have taken the DIS 29500 standards process very seriously, and the representatives of dozens of those countries have made plans to attend the BRM in Geneva to represent their needs and work with one another to discuss and decide on technical details of the DIS 29500 specification. In my opinion, OFE's anti-BRM is a demonstration of disrespect for each and every one of those people, as well as ISO/IEC and the whole concept of consensus-based international standards.