IBM's Hints At Leaving Some Tech Standards Bodies

The policy change is seen by experts as the fallout over the adoption of Microsoft's Open XML document format as an international standard.

Antone Gonsalves, Contributor

September 23, 2008

3 Min Read

IBM on Tuesday set rules for its participation in standards bodies, a move that could lead to the company withdrawing from groups that fail to meet its new criteria for "quality and openness" in reviewing specifications for software and computer system interoperability.

IBM's policy change is seen by experts as the fallout over the adoption of Microsoft's Open XML document format as an international standard. The format used in Microsoft's Office software suite was approved in April by the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, over complaints of irregularities in the approval process by at least four national standards bodies.

While IBM is only one vote in any standards body, Big Blue's influence as one of the world's largest tech companies is tremendous, given its huge portfolio of intellectual property. IBM dedicates thousands of engineers in working groups of hundreds of consortia and traditional accredited standards organizations around the world, including single-standards-focused organizations to the Geneva-based ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission. Such bodies set technical standards for everything from storage and IT systems to programming languages.

Within IBM's "IT Standards Policy" is a list of actions IBM plans to take in support of its goals in working with standards bodies. Among the goals seen as stemming from the recent brouhaha over the approval of Open XML is one in which IBM said it would "advance governance rules within standards bodies that ensure technology decisions, votes, and dispute resolutions are made fairly by independent participants, protected from undue influence."

In another policy change, IBM vowed to "work for process reform in standards organizations, so that proxies or surrogates cannot be used in standards creation and approval."

Among the complaints in the Open XML process was that Microsoft had stacked national committees within the ISO with employees and sympathetic voters, The Wall Street Journal reported. In addition, opponents complained that Open XML was so complicated that only Microsoft could fully implement it, which would help the software company maintain its dominance of the office productivity market. In opposing Open XML, IBM and other organizations supported a rival format Open Document, which was already an ISO standard.

To this day, the hard-fought battle has left lingering bad feelings within the tech industry, according to, a well-known source of information on standards, standards setting, and open source software.

IBM listed five tenets of its new policy. The most ominous is one in which the company said it would "begin or end participation in standards bodies based on the quality and openness of their processes, membership rules and intellectual property policies." How IBM will apply this policy remains to be seen. In the meantime, an invitation-only event is scheduled to take place in Yale University in November, where government, academic, industry, policy, and standards body officials are expected to discuss the possibility of a new global organization to rate standards development bodies, according to ConsortiumInfo.

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