As the ODF-OOXML world turns

I’m a bit behind on this, but it’s a topic I’ve been covering for a while now so I wanted to follow up. First, from the the 451 group:

Oh the drama. Most of us knew ISO approval of Microsoft’s OOXML format was not the end, but more of a beginning in the ongoing fight for the future’s file format. Any doubts of that were put to rest this week with a flurry of activity around OOXML’s approval, ODF adoption, Microsoft’s support and the stance of U.S. states and other governments.

Much of it started with Microsoft’s announcement that it would expand its Office 2007 format support, including ODF. The move, which means Office 2007 users will be able to set ODF as their default file format, is further evidence of changes at Microsoft and the need to support multiple formats and interoperability. However, it still drew criticism from a number of ODF proponents/OOXML opponents, whose concerns include the typical Microsoft skepticism, but also center on the software giant’s OOXML approval campaign and previous statements downplaying the market for ODF.

We also saw further objection to ISO’s OOXML approval, primarily an appeal from South Africa. As format expert and saga watcher Andy Updegrove points out here, the appeal centers on the approval process and also on the ‘business basis’ for OOXML’s fast-track approval. Despite that relatively rapid approval, Updegrove points out that, ironically, Microsoft Office users will not have the opportunity to use the file format until Microsoft’s coming Office 14, expected in 2010 at the earliest.

Microsoft credited customer and government demand for its new found ODF love, but we also saw indications it may also involve difficulties in backward compatibility with OOXML. As ZDNet’s Tom Espiner points out, ‘The company now says OOXML support would require substantially more work.’ This comes as no surprise to many open source software users who have come to the same conclusion over the years. In fact, the inability of Microsoft to support different versions of its own Office and format software has fueled many downloads over the last few years, including my own.

Still, customer demand as the reasoning behind Microsoft’s ODF support was reinforced by yet another development in the ongoing format saga: findings from the State of New York. While the state’s officials indicated it would be a mistake to name ODF or OOXML as the standard of choice, New York’s format wonks did indicate that openness is the path to the future. That does not necessarily mean ODF, but it certainly makes it more likely given the controversy, uncertainty and drama still surrounding OOXML.

Since that post, Brazil and India have also decided to appeal. The deadline to appeal has now passed. The India post by Andy contains some good “what comes next” information for those that are interested. The appeals all have some items in common, but each also has points made only by that country. It’s clear that Microsoft did some very shady things during this process. It’s a sad indication that the company is still not willing to compete on the merits of its products on the one hand. On the other hand, they recently announced that Office 2007 would support ODF but not OOXML:

Microsoft today announced that it would update Office 2007 to natively support ODF 1.1, but not to implement its own OOXML format. Moreover, it would also join both the OASIS working group as well as the ISO/IEC JTC1 working group that has control of the ISO/IEC version of ODF. Implementation of DIS 29500, the ISO/IEC JTC 1 version of OOXML that has still not been publicly released will await the release of Office 14, the ship date of which remains unannounced.

So they fast track an office format while a competing one already exists, push it through the approval process using tactics that are questionable at best and then decide to only implement the competing standard in the current shipping product. You couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s clear that the internal battle within Microsoft is still raging. Part of the company really want to change, but part of it really doesn’t. It remains to be seen which side will prevail, but it’s not difficult to see why many in the Open Source community remain wary.


OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"

A couple weeks ago, Andy posted about the current problems the SC 34 was having as a result of the sudden surge in “P” members. From the post:

One of the more egregious behaviors observed in the recent vote on OOXML was the sudden and last minute surge to join not only various National Bodies just before they voted on OOXML, but also the relevant committee of ISO/IEC for the same purpose. At the latter level, not one but two unusual membership changes occurred. During the voting period, more and more countries joined SC 34, the committee within ISO/IEC’s Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1) that addresses document formats, at the Observer (O) level. Then, in the final weeks and days before the voting closed, many of these new members as well as many longer term members suddenly upgraded their status to Principal ((P) membership, thereby gaining greater influence in the final vote under the complex rules under which the committee operates (those rules are described in detail here).

SC 34 is one of the more important and active committees in JTC1, and has a constant stream of standards under active consideration and balloting. In anticipation of the OOXML vote, its membership surged – with 23 new National Body members, and the number of P members spiking by 11. When almost all of the new members voted for adoption (most of those countries that were long term members voted against adoption, with comments), many felt that the standard setting process had been abused.

But unfortunately, the damage has not stopped there: since the OOXML ballot closed on September 2, not a single ballot has received enough votes to count in this important committee. Why? Because the last minute arrivals to SC 34 are not bothering to vote.

The resulting gridlock of this committee was as predictable as it is unfortunate. The extraordinarily large number of upgrades in the final months, and particularly in the final days, therefore seemed attributable not to an abiding investment and interest in the work of SC 34, but in the outcome of a single standards vote. That conclusion is now certain, given the voting performance of the upgraded members since they cast their votes on OOXML.

The end result of this is that things have “ground to a halt.”, in the words of the Secretariat Manager. A couple days ago, Andy took a closer look at the numbers:

The problem with SC 34, then, isn’t whether those that voted against OOXML (old and new) are failing to vote as much as those (old and new) that voted for it, but whether the new P upgrades are voting at all. It’s also instructive to look at how those same upgrades voted on OOXML. As you’d expect, what you see is not that long-term P members have suddenly quit voting, but that the influx of a large number of new, non-voting P members simply changes the math.

When we look at the data from this perspective, we see a very different picture. Here’s how the eleven countries that upgraded from O to P membership in the months (and often just days) before the OOXML voting period closed on OOXML, and also whether or not they voted in the more recent ballot (all data is from Rick’s analysis of the voting record):

Upgrades that voted to adopt OOXML and didn’t vote later: 7
(Côte d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Lebanon, Malta, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela)

Upgrades that abstained on OOXML and didn’t vote later: 1
(Trinidad and Tobago)

Upgrades that voted against OOXML and didn’t vote later: 0

[Rick doesn’t mention the other three upgrades, so I assume that they did in fact vote on the ballot he examined. They, and their votes on OOXML, were as follows: Ecuador (disapprove), Jamaica (approve) and Uruguay (approve, with comments)]

That tells a rather different tale, doesn’t it? In fact, 7 out of 8 upgrades that voted “yes” without comments didn’t vote, while the only upgrade that voted against OOXML apparently did participate in the ballot Rick selected for examination. An abstention, by the way, is a next best thing to an approval vote under the complex ISO/IEC rules.

It’s a bit disconcerting, although as Andy mentions entirely predictable, that this kind of thing can happen. The fact that companies play these games when they have little chance of hiding the repercussions show you how out of hand some things have gotten. In this case, there may be a remedy though. From the ISO rules:

A technical committee or subcommittee secretariat shall notify the Chief Executive Officer if a P-member of that technical committee or subcommittee
• has been persistently inactive and has failed to make a contribution to 2 consecutive
meetings, either by direct participation or by correspondence,
• or has failed to vote on questions submitted for voting within the technical committee or
subcommittee (such as new work item proposals).
Upon receipt of such a notification, the Chief Executive Officer shall remind the national body of its obligation to take an active part in the work of the technical committee or subcommittee. In the absence of a satisfactory response to this reminder, the national body shall automatically have its status changed to that of O-member. A national body having its status so changed may, after a period of 12 months, indicate to the Chief Executive Officer that it wishes to regain P-membership of the committee, in which case this shall be granted.

1.7.5 If a P-member of a technical committee or subcommittee fails to vote on an enquiry draft or final draft International Standard prepared by the respective committee, the Chief Executive Officer shall remind the national body of its obligation to vote. In the absence of a satisfactory response to this reminder, the national body shall automatically have its status changed to that of O-member. A national body having its status so changed may, after a period of twelve months, indicate to the Chief Executive Officer that it wishes to regain P-membership of the committee, in which case this shall be granted.

If I read that right, it could mean that the countries that upgraded to P-member status simply to vote for OOXML could be moved back to O-members if they continue their non-participation. If that were to happen, they would have to remain O-members for at least 12 months. If the final vote for OOXML fell within that time, none of them would be able to pull the same shenanigans. Whether I am reading that correctly and/or that’s how things will play out or not, I’ll leave to someone who understand the morass of these standards comities.

–jeremy has been in the news for a couple reasons this week. On one hand, IBM announced that is was releasing Lotus Symphony, an office suite that is based on code and runs in an Eclipse instance. On the other hand, some of the community is up in arms about the control Sun continues to have over the project. Note that I am not involved in the OOo community on a daily basis, so I don’t know if the CW article is just a journalistic powder keg or a legitimate impending feud. Looking at the issues at hand, I do have a little commentary however. When you look at successful Open Source projects of a certain size, they typically have some kind of benevolent dictator at the top. Sometimes it’s a person (Linux for example), sometimes it’s a Foundation (Firefox, Apache, Eclipse) and sometimes it’s a company (Alfresco,OpenOffice). Whatever the structure, that direction and leadership from the top is critical to the success of a project. It’s clear that up until now, Sun has been the “top” of the project. They employee about 85% of the contributors and all official commits must go through Hamburg. Don’t forget that is the result of Sun acquiring Star Office and open sourcing it. Keeping that in mind, it’s clear that some features have not made it into the product because Sun did not want it to happen. That being said, I think that overall Sun has done a very good job with the project.

Now, with IBM joining the project on an official level and also committing 35 head count from China, things may be set to change. Have we reached a point where Sun should let go and form an “ Foundation”? If so, how much control of that organization should they retain? Or, is it OK for a company that started an Open Source project to maintain control if they are providing good leadership? is hugely important to the Open Source community, so this is an important discussion. I think that an Foundation makes the most sense in this case, but I could see a general argument for maintaining company control (at least in some cases). What do you think?

One final comment. I forget sometimes how difficult a position Sun has put themselves in after years of being schizo about Open Source. For the last couple of years they have done some truly awesome things, yet they continue to take a beating in the community. I wonder how long it is until some will think they have paid their dues. With some of the OpenSolaris vs. Linux posturing that is sure to come (more comments on that soon) my guess is that Sun may not get the credit they deserve for some time.


Microsoft Fails to Gain Approval for OOXML

There are so many posts flying around about this that it’s been difficult to keep up (and I’m still digesting a lot of it), but the bottom line is that the OOXML is not an ISO standard. Well, at least not yet. A bit oddly, Microsoft has spun this in a positive way with their “Strong Global Support for Open XML as It Enters Final Phase of ISO Standards Process” press release. The reality is that this is just the beginning. Things now move to the next step, which should get really interesting. Microsoft is pulling out all the stops on this one. Andy Updegrove, who is not only extremely knowledgeable on the subject buy also extremely balanced in his observations, went as fas as to say:

As someone who has spent a great part of my life working to support open standards over the past 20 years, I have to say that this is the most egregious, and far-reaching, example of playing the system to the advantage of a single company that I have ever seen. Breathtaking, in fact. That’s assuming, of course, that I am right in supposing that all of these newbie countries vote “yes.”

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see a few more days to learn whether that assumption is true. Want to place your bets?

Looking at other sources, allegations range from ballot stuffing to nearly straight up coercion and bribery. That should be an indication of just how important this is to Microsoft and just how important it should be to you. It’s fascinating to see one part of Microsoft make what appears to be a sincere effort to join the Open Source community and then see another part act like this. I’ll be doing some additional reading/research and will certainly have more to say on the topic. For now, here’s some good additional reading for you:

Once More unto the Breach
Once More unto the Breach
All about Microsoft


Massachusetts Falls to OOXML as ITD Punts

From Andy Updegrove:

In a not unanticipated move, Massachusetts announced today that Ecma 376, the name given to the Microsoft Office Open XML formats following their adoption by Ecma, would be acceptable for use by the Executive Agencies of the Commonwealth. The announcement was made even as it appears more questionable whether the National Body members of ISO/IEC JTC1 will conclude that the formats are in suitable form to be granted standards status, and despite the fact that the ITD receive comments from 460 individuals and organizations during the brief comment period announced on July 5.

Most of those comments, “addressed revisions made to the Data Formats section [of the proposed changes to the Enterprise Technical Reference Model, or ETRM], specifically the inclusion of Ecma-376 Office Open XML as an acceptable document format for office applications along with the Open Document Format (ODF).” That number is several times the input received in connection with the original draft of the ETRM in August of 2005 that originally included ODF but not Microsoft’s OOXML.

The decision was posted today at the Information Technology Division’s Web site in a statement attributed to Henry Dormitzer, Undersecretary of Administration and Finance, Interim Commissioner, Department of Revenue, and Bethann Pepoli, Acting Chief Information Officer. That statement read in part as follows:

The Commonwealth continues on its path toward open, XML-based document formats without reflecting a vendor or commercial bias in ETRM v4.0. Many of the comments we received identify concerns regarding the Open XML specification. We believe that these concerns, as with those regarding ODF, are appropriately handled through the standards setting process, and we expect both standards to evolve and improve. Moreover, we believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised about either standard is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards. Therefore, we will be moving forward to include both ODF and Open XML as acceptable document formats. All comments received are posted on this web site.

The “Fair and Balanced – let someone else decide” decision by the current administration and interim CIO Bethann Pepoli stands in sharp contrast to the positions taken by predecessor CIOs Peter Quinn and Louis Gutierrez, backed by then governor (and now-presidential hopeful) Mitt Romney. Both Quinn and Gutierrez insisted on including only “open standards” in the ETRM, and withstood significant pressure from Microsoft to give ground and accept OOXML prior to its adoption by ISO/IEC JTC1.

He ends the blog post with:

Massachusetts – or, more properly, a small number of courageous public servants – did something important two years ago when they took a stand for open formats. It is regrettable that their successors have seen fit to abandon that principled stance, even to the expedient extent of waiting a short while longer to see whether Microsoft’s OOXML formats will be found to be sufficient or lacking under the microscope of the global standards adoption process.

Unlike so many days before as the saga of ODF and OOXML has unfolded, this is not a day to be proud in Massachusetts.

I do find it odd that the ITD didn’t wait what is probably about a month or so to see how the ISO approval process went. Massachusetts defines an Open Format as follows:

“The Commonwealth defines open formats as specifications for data file formats that are based on an underlying open standard, developed by an open community, affirmed and maintained by a standards body and are fully documented and publicly available.”

It seems clear to me that OOXML does not meet this definition, arguably in multiple ways. Matthew Aslett points out some of the revisionist history that seems to be taking place at this point. As Andy points out, this is not an unanticipated move. That doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing though.


More Microsoft Patent Dealings

So, Linspire is the latest company to sign a patent deal with Microsoft. They’ve even managed to wrangle some additional items they claim are not in the other deals:

Linspire Inc. has announced an agreement to license voice-enabled instant messaging, Windows Media 10 CODECs, and TrueType font technologies from Microsoft for its Linux distribution. Additionally, Microsoft will offer protection to Linspire customers against possible violations of Microsoft patents by Linux.

In his June 14 weekly Linspire Letter, Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony stated, “This agreement will offer several advantages to Linspire Linux users not found anywhere else, such as Windows Media 10 support, genuine Microsoft TrueType fonts, Microsoft patent coverage, improved interoperability with Microsoft Windows computers, and so on.”

Linspire has always been more willing than most to include proprietary codecs and drivers, so this is no surprise. While I may not agree with their stance, I do think they are legitimately trying to improve the desktop Linux experience, and you can’t fault them for that (or at least I don’t). I do find it odd that they’d choose to have a demonstrably inferior product in Live Search be the default, but I digress. What’s troubling once again is the inclusion of dubious patent protection. Now, Linspire (nee Lindows) and Microsoft have a tumultuous history. In that vein, this post has some interesting tidbits.

We now have three Linux distributions wrapped up in this patent debate. It was speculated that Mandriva may be next. Based on the profile of the latest two companies, it seemed a logical guess if you had to make one. It’s good to see that they have gone on the record saying that it’s not going to happen. Red Hat already rejected the idea and Mark made his feelings very clear in this post:

There’s a rumour circulating that Ubuntu is in discussions with Microsoft aimed at an agreement along the lines they have concluded recently with Linspire, Xandros, Novell etc. Unfortunately, some speculation in the media (thoroughly and elegantly debunked in the blogosphere but not before the damage was done) posited that “Ubuntu might be next”.

For the record, let me state my position, and I think this is also roughly the position of Canonical and the Ubuntu Community Council though I haven’t caucused with the CC on this specifically.

We have declined to discuss any agreement with Microsoft under the threat of unspecified patent infringements.

Allegations of “infringement of unspecified patents” carry no weight whatsoever. We don’t think they have any legal merit, and they are no incentive for us to work with Microsoft on any of the wonderful things we could do together. A promise by Microsoft not to sue for infringement of unspecified patents has no value at all and is not worth paying for. It does not protect users from the real risk of a patent suit from a pure-IP-holder (Microsoft itself is regularly found to violate such patents and regularly settles such suits). People who pay protection money for that promise are likely living in a false sense of security.

I welcome Microsoft’s stated commitment to interoperability between Linux and the Windows world – and believe Ubuntu will benefit fully from any investment made in that regard by Microsoft and its new partners, as that code will no doubt be free software and will no doubt be included in Ubuntu.

He also goes on to state why he dislikes OOXML.

With regard to open standards on document formats, I have no confidence in Microsoft’s OpenXML specification to deliver a vibrant, competitive and healthy market of multiple implementations. I don’t believe that the specifications are good enough, nor that Microsoft will hold itself to the specification when it does not suit the company to do so. There is currently one implementation of the specification, and as far as I’m aware, Microsoft hasn’t even certified that their own Office12 completely implements OpenXML, or that OpenXML completely defines Office12’s behavior. The Open Document Format (ODF) specification is a much better, much cleaner and widely implemented specification that is already a global standard. I would invite Microsoft to participate in the OASIS Open Document Format working group, and to ensure that the existing import and export filters for Office12 to Open Document Format are improved and available as a standard option. Microsoft is already, I think, a member of OASIS. This would be a far more constructive open standard approach than OpenXML, which is merely a vague codification of current practice by one vendor.

The speculation as to what Microsoft’s end goals are with this remain all over the map. I maintain they themselves may not even be sure yet. One might think they are trying to fracture the Linux market – a sort of divide and conquer. As long as Ubuntu and Red Hat remain on the other side, however, that plan isn’t going to work. The only real loser in that scenario would potentially be Novell. It’s clear that smaller, desktop oriented companies are their current sweet spot, which says a lot in my opinion. Not sure where this is all going, but it’s getting more interesting to watch by the day. Stay tuned.


Why Multiple Competing Standards are a Bad Idea

A good look at why multiple competing products using an open standard is good, but multiple competing standards that do almost the exact same thing are not:

I guess one good result is that Microsoft has encouraged voting for OpenDocument, because that’s the only logical thing it can do if it really believes that having “many conflicting formats are a good thing”. In contrast, there’s no reason that someone who wants a truly open single format needs to vote for OOXML. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject OOXML on the grounds that it conflicts with an already-existing ISO standard (OpenDocument). If there’s something that OOXML does that OpenDocument doesn’t, it would be much easier to add that tweak to OpenDocument, because OpenDocument builds on existing standards while OOXML fails to do so.

Microsoft is not a “universal evil”, and I praise them when they do good things. But encouraging multiple conflicting standards for the same area is not a good thing. In some sense, I don’t care if MS XML or ODF become “the” format for office documents, as long as the final specification is truly open. But the materials noted above lead me to believe that MS XML is not really open; it appears to be effectively controlled by one vendor, both in its current and future forms, as one obvious example. So MS XML isn’t really an option, and we already have a nice working solution.

What I want is a single document format that is fully open. What’s that mean? See Is OpenDocument an Open Standard? Yes! to see what the phrase “open standard” really means. And let’s look at it in practice. Currently I can edit text documents using the program “vim”, and I don’t even bother to ask if the other person uses emacs, or Notepad… just by saying “simple text format” we can exchange our files. Similarly, I can edit a GIF or PNG file without wondering what originally created the file – or who will edit it next. That’s generally true with other standards like HTML, HTTP, and TCP/IP. That’s the beauty of open standards – real open standards enable a thriving industry of competing products, allowing users to choose and re-choose between them. I want to see that beautiful sunlight in office suites as well.

Interestingly, the issue of a single rail gauge standard during the civil war has come up in at least three recent examples that I can think of.


State Open-Source Bills Get Microsoft's Attention

(via Stephe) The WSJ has an article up (also at MarketWatch) about Microsoft’s battle with State governments over ODF adoption. Stephe digs into the Microsoft site to see what their opinion was in the past. From the WSJ article:

The impetus for the Texas bill was similar to that in other states — a desire to ensure access to archived and current documents regardless of which company’s application is used to open them, and lower costs. “If the state could have these companies compete against each other, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars,” Mr. Veasey said.

Dr. Homan said he first became interested in the open-document-format issue when Florida’s Department of Health requested renewal of a three-year software agreement with Microsoft at a cost of $12.4 million. “I thought, man, that’s a lot of money, and that comes up every three years.”

Dr. Homan said Florida and other states could save money with genuinely open formats, because they are designed to work with other, conceivably lower-cost document applications than what Microsoft offers, such as the open-source technology OpenOffice. The idea is that not only state workers but also constituents could use such cheaper options.

“Microsoft sees what’s coming. Things like Word and Excel are sort of like a drug now getting ready to go generic,” Dr. Homan said.

That last sentence nails it in a clearer way than I’ve seen elsewhere. Despite what Microsoft lobbying may attempt to assert, real competition here would be good for State governments from a cost perspective. Even bigger to me though is the freedom state constituents would gain for accessing information they have a right to. With Office counting for Billions in revenue though, Microsoft has a fiduciary duty to downplay that. And they are. Will they be able to make a convincing enough argument to stave off the growing ODF swell? We’ll see.