Some people are startled to find that, amidst all the talk here of OASIS (now ISO) ODF versus ECMA Office Open XML, China has developed its own independent office document format, Uniform Office Format (UOF). I am not startled, but delighted, and here’s why.
People like that quote from Tanenbaum that the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from. However, apply it to screws. It is a nice thing that we have so many different standard sized screws to choose from. If someone said “We only need one-sized screw; ditch the rest” they would rightly be besieged by more robust suggestions invoking that topic. Standardization is about the consolidation of variety: the reduction of variety is the means not the ends; but the total reduction of variety is not really a necesary means or a worthwhile ends.
And I think there is an idea floating around that somehow the market thrives on innovation while standardization implies monopolization. Whereas, in fact, companies can, will and should use standardization as a mechanism for marketing, efficiency (shared R&D for example), and technical excellence. Sometimes the most free-market people want to insist that standards should be Stalinized, as state run monopolies. But ideas compete. They rise and fall. They cross-pollenate. Get over it honey.
International standardization warrants that a technology has reached a certain level in its documentation (a fairly strange level, perhaps, but a standard one at least), that its technical merits are at least credible, and that it seems useful to a variety of different nations. Standardization looks like it is about promoting a technology, but it does this through a weaker vessel: publishing printable documentation.
UOF is a Chinese (People’s Republic) industrial standard. It seem mainly to come out of the needs of RedOffice, which is a fork of Open Office that adds support for some East Asian specific features: electronic chops (like signatures), hand annotation for tricky characters (I am surprised this is needed for Simplified Chinese documents: but Chinese need to communicate with Traditional Chinese users, not to mention Japane and Korea…any readers have more information on why this is needed, apart from for red-lining?), and so on. PRC has its own encoding of Unicode too, and I gather RedOffice and UOF may use this natively: it has nicer ordering and transcoding properties with some legacy Chinese encodings than UTF-16 or UTF-8.
According to the UOF material, the format encapsulates requirements from several other word processing or office systems too. China raised the possibility of getting it adopted as an international standard, but there was not much interest from other national bodies: probably if it had Japanese and Korean features and acceptance as well it would have little trouble getting though ISO. Or even Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Singaporese adoption. However, not ever national standard needs to become an international standard. (Actually, just as with ODF and Office Open XML, I tend to think it would fit better as an ISO/IEC JTC1 SC34 Technical Report [or equivalent] than an International Standard in any case. The trouble with making ODF and Office Open XML into ISO Standards is that it forces ISO to disrepect efforts like UOF. )
So why am I delighted with UOF? Because one of the real difficulties of working with internationalization and standards-making is the lack of information and direction. UOF seems to address real and significant issues that PRC (and other East Asian countries) face, and the PRC are doing exactly the right thing by being pro-active in developing standards that suit their needs. And by apparantly making them freely available royalty free.
I was doubly happy to read that there is a desire to “harmonise” UOF and ODF, which seems to mean letting UOF be a source for improvements to ODF.
Finally, as a former resident of two East Asian nations, I view the development of indigenous open standards as a sign of economic and technological maturity (as if any were needed), the move from being passive consumers to active creators. ISO RELAX NG was based on technologies developed in Japan and Thailand. ISO Schematron was developed originally out of research in Taiwan. The Koreans also have a very active standards-making effort and an interest in indigenous office software systems, which is one reason they sponsored the ISO/IEC JTC1 SC34 meetings in May in Seoul. I notice that one of the presentations in the recent PRC conference on Open Standards, IPR and Innovation spoke of an “international standards war.” People expect that there will be Europeans involved in standards-making, because of the European Union, but in fact there has been a lot of activity in East Asian countries too.
I was talking to a Chinese workmate today, and we were discussing how difficult it can be for people from respect-based (or shame-based) cultures to participate in contention/advocacy forums. Or, from the other perspective, how biased against people from respect-based cultures contention-based forums can be. I have enormous admiration for people such as Yuichi Komachi and Murata Makoto who participate as the Japanese point-men at ISO meetings, for example; because I can imagine how unpleasant it must be for them sometimes. Not because we Westerners are pushy, self-aggrandizing, disrepectful loud-mouths. But learning to participate well with foreigners is a difficult skill and discipline which they have mastered graciously. And that is the final reason why I am delighted by the idea of UOF: the cultural/organizational differences between nations is an additional hurdle even above indigenous technical and business requirements: it is difficult to have a thriving international participation in standards work until after you have a thriving national process.