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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nigeria and politics of OOXML voting

Features of the week:

Nigeria in efforts to harmonise her positions on the initial draft of OOXML, recently held stakeholders’ meeting in Lagos. REMMY NWEKE who has been following the exercise reports.

Preamble:

Recently, Nigeria took part in the efforts to globally standardise the DIS 29500 Ecma “Office Open Extensible Markup Language (OOXML),” through a democratic means following a meeting of Information Technology (IT) stakeholders in the country summoned by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) in accordance with the directives of the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

According to the ISO JTC-1 directive paragraph 48 section 9.8, national bodies are required to reach a consensus and precisely vote “NO with comments” if there remain unanswered technical problems.

The meeting paved the way for the nation’s voting pattern at the global voting on the draft OOXML on Sunday, September 2, 2007, which final voting is expected by next year.

What is XML?

Ordinarily, XML is a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) initiative that allows information and services to be encoded with meaningful structure and semantics, which computers and humans could understand. XML is great for information exchange, and could easily be extended to include user-specified and industry-specified tags.

The battle line:

On the other hand, OOXML, the Office Open Extensible Markup Language version of XML being proposed by Microsoft Corporation and over 20 allied, which has been greatly opposed by the proponents of Open Source Software, claimed that it has over 200 flaws.

But for Microsoft and collaborators, Office Open XML enjoys positive momentum, especially at the just concluded debate, as well as widespread use.

Also, Microsoft said that over 2000 partners representing 67 countries on six continents gave their green lights for the ratification of OOXML by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) prior to the initial voting on September 2.

Meeting @ SON:

Then, the stakeholders meeting penultimately held on a Wednesday, at the headquarters of SON in Lekki, an outskirt of Lagos, was presided over by the Director General (DG), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Prof. Cleopas Officer Angaye, who was represented by the Director, Zonal Coordination at NITDA, Mr. Inye Kemabonta, just as he was assisted by the Director of Standards at SON, Mr. Charles Okoro, at the occasion.

Prof. Angaye, while addressing the meeting, said that Nigeria stands to benefit immensely from the standardisation of OOXML by ISO, especially in the areas of local software development, adding that Nigeria’s support of OOXML would translate into major reduction in the cost of acquiring and managing government applications.

NITDA boss, equally said, that OOXML is interoperable and could enable optimisation of broadband utilisation in the country, stressing that though there could not be any categorical statement on the outcome of the meeting, there is still room for dynamic contributions, mostly since the final voting is due sometime next year.

He advised few dissenting voices at the occasion from the CSOs to forward their claims of multiple flaws in the OOXML online to the attendees, emphasising that OOXML could be accepted if it is technically sound.

Also speaking, Director of Standards at SON, Mr. Charles Okoro, informed that the meeting was to afford Nigeria the opportunity of harmonising her stand on the proposed standard, which is in its initial draft.

Mr. Okoro noted that the final voting on the proposal will be held next year, adding that those who do not have their say at this initial stage could still make input before the final adoption.

He promised that SON would always keep the Nigerian stakeholders abreast of development in the issue and expressed joy in their honouring the invitation to discuss the initial draft, just as Nigeria, has grown in rank of participation within the ISO schemes and currently contributed to 18 standards from previously 14.

Boycot by CSOs:

Meanwhile, members of CSOs in the country, inadvertently boycotted the meeting due to the number of attendees from the non-governmental bodies. Out of the estimated 19 participants, only four supposedly represented civil society group, while the rest were made up of government officials and Microsoft partners.

It was further gathered that top notchers of CSO in the country travelled out and could not make the meeting or even sent representatives.

Champion Infotel recalled that earlier some members of CSO had sounded a note of warning, arguing that OOXML has several flaws that made it fall short of admission into a global standard, more so by ISO at this era when its open standard module have some hidden agenda.

“The DIS 29500 “Office Open XML” (OOXML) does not meet the criteria defined by ISO and others for an International Standard,“ CSOs had insisted, stressing it is an immature documentation of one vendor’s proprietary document format, which depends on software patents held by this vendor. This, CSOs pointed out, obstructs interoperability, hence it’s in conflict with existing ISO standards.

Advancing support for OOXML:

However, responding to recent media reports on the debate, the Public Relations and Events Manager, Microsoft Nigeria, Ms Ndidiamaka Victoria Uwadoka, informed that even third parties have also endorsed the standard. This included contributors from the Open Source community and those appreciative of interoperability software solutions.

“Other third parties have endorsed the standard, including contributors to the Open Source community and those who appreciate the need for interoperability among mixed software solutions,” she declared.

In addition, Ms Uwadoka said that contrary to reports, African civil society organisations, as a homogenous group, for instance, are not against the Open XML, stressing that over 2000 partners representing 67 countries on six continents have given their support for Open XML approval.

Recognised by communities:

“More than 2000 partners representing 67 countries on six continents support Open XML and its ratification by ISO,” she told correspondent before the voting on the draft, adding that this expanding community of voices recognised the fact that this format gives partners many opportunities to innovate and deliver the full value of XML-based technologies to customers.

Ms Uwadoka asserted that OOXML has been helpful to those deploying it to achieve their goals of increased productivity and decreased costs, and explained that although Microsoft has been instrumental in the development of the Ecma Office Open XML standard, “Open XML is not a Microsoft standard but an international one.”

Microsoft further said that Open XML is an international, open standard for word-processing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets that could be freely implemented by multiple applications on multiple platforms.

Standardisation of OOXML:

According to her, the work to standardise Open XML is being carried out by a technical committee of Ecma International, which includes representatives from Apple, Barclays Capital, BP, British Library, Essilor, Intel, Microsoft, NextPage, Novell, Statoil, Toshiba and the United States Library of Congress.

“The standard is under the maintenance of Ecma; Microsoft has just one vote of the more than 20 members,” she stated.

Microsoft further said that contrary to reports, United States and Germany have voted ‘Yes’ with comments to accept Open XML as an ISO standard.

As said by her, “’Yes, with comments’ means that it was a progressive outcome from the national standards body, and Ecma looks forward to resolving these comments during the ballot resolution process, claiming that South Africa only voted on Sunday, September 2.

How they voted:

At the voting proper on September 2, the required 66 per cent criteria was not met as OOXML advocates got 53 per cent, while those against recorded about 26 per cent, even as 23.5 per cent abstained.

Some of the critics with hindsight blamed the software giant of aggressive lobbying for a backlash of the voting at the draft OOXML, even as out of the 87 countries that participated, only 69 voted yes or no; 18 of those, or 26 per cent of the total, opposed the bid.

Under the voting rules, no more than 25 per cent of countries could oppose the bid.

Corruption tendencies:

The Africa CSOs equally alleged that corrupt tendencies influenced the voting of developing countries, at the debate in Geneva, Switzerland, especially from developing economies, most of who are on the continent.

Champion Infotel gathered that ISO received a total of 87 votes, out of which 70 was given either by the secretariat country (USA), participating members (“P Member”) or observers (“O Member”) and at various stages of the voting only these 70 votes were taken into consideration.

Reacting to the voting pattern, some members of CSOs from Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria concurred that corrupt tendencies must have influenced the exercise, mostly from developing countries on the continent and beyond.

They argued that about 17 countries, which took part in the exercise were perceived to be relatively corrupt, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2006 (CPI index).

“… Mostly supported the OOXML, with approval given by 13, approval with comments 2, abstention 0, disapproval 2,” a senior member of African CSOs alleged.

The 2006 CPI index was a research by Prof. J. Graf Lambsdorff of the University of Passau and commissioned by Transparency International.

CSOs further stated that of the most corrupted half (CPI index less than 3.95) 23 or 77 per cent voted for approval, approval or approval with comments) and 7 or 23 per cent for disapproval; 5 abstained.

They emphasised that of the least corrupted half in the CPI index, which is more than 3.95, that is, 13 or 54 per cent voted for approval of OOXML and 11 or 46 voted for disapproval, while 11 abstained.

Submission:

Although it was deduced from what went on at the stakeholders meeting in Lagos, as being the government position based on its relationship with the likes of Microsoft, even prior to the meeting as most of the attendees were reportedly ‘Microsoft’ people, coming mostly from all over the country including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and government institutions.

Nonetheless, it is relevant stakeholders look inward critically to avail the nation the optimal service, just as the final ISO voting on OOXML come 2008 by ensuring harmonisation of voices, must be preceded by extensive education and sensitisation in order to make a meaning to the people and specifically the IT communities, who may not after all have equal understanding of the subject matter.

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