Arnaud's Blog

Opinions on open source, standards, and other things

OOXML: And the light came on

I’ve thought about posting here several times over the last many months and I even have several drafts that never saw the light but this just keeps getting pushed down too far on my priority list to happen. However, I have to react to the buzz I’m discovering on my return from a week off.

Indeed, it is with quite a bit of astonishment that I read about Alex Brown’s frustration over Microsoft lack of interest in implementing ISO/IEC 29500 (OOXML). In the burgeoning comment sections following his post, Alex writes:

@Mr Allison

> The outcome that many had predicted, yet you
> insisted would not occur

Oh? I don’t recall making predictions about Microsoft’s behaviour? URL please!

Well, let me give you a link to a prediction I made! In my post What Microsoft’s track record tells us about OOXML’s future of March 25, 2008 I wrote:

They can, and I predict will, ignore all these additions which are optional and stick to what they have. The only reason they were added was to remove reasons for National Bodies to vote against OOXML.

So, here we are. Two years later, Microsoft has done exactly that and Alex Brown is finally seeing the light.

One can only hope that the standards community will have at least learned a lesson from this sad story: you simply cannot take control away from a vendor who has a monopoly and isn’t willing to give it up through a mere standardization process.


April 2, 2010 Posted by | standards | , | 5 Comments

SDForum, Microsoft ISV Forum, and OSBC: three conferences on Open Source

As I indicated in a previous post I was invited to participate in the SDForum Open Source Colloquium on Monday. This year the event ended up being jointly held with Microsoft third annual Open Source ISV Forum which was taking place the same day. Unfortunately, due to conflicting schedules I couldn’t attend much of Microsoft’s sessions.

The next two days the InfoWorld OSBC conference was held in the same hotel and I attended that event as well. So, I just participated in two and a half days of presentations, panels, and hallway discussions on open source and I want to share some of my impressions.

First, I think it’s fair to say that the most obvious thing that comes out of all this is that there isn’t any discussion about whether open source is real or not anymore. It is clearly accepted that it’s become part of our industry and it’s here to stay. As several speakers commented the fact that even Microsoft seems to finally be recognizing this fact is a clear sign that this question isn’t really up for debate anymore.

I should point out that Microsoft’s message remains somewhat twisted though. Yes, they recognize that open source is part of our industry. They talk about interoperability with Linux for instance and this appears to be real, simply because it is motivated by customer demand and even Microsoft has to listen to its customers sometimes.

However, this doesn’t mean they are embracing open source for that matter. You’ve probably heard that the financial crisis is said to be an incentive for companies to look at open source solutions as a way to cut costs. I don’t know about you but it makes sense to me.

In the little I heard during Microsoft’s event one of their executives was claiming that contrary to what is being said there is no real move toward open source though. According to him this is because the last thing companies want to do in the current situation is to take risks and moving toward open source is too big a risk.

While the point may seem to have some validity it’s reminding me of the same old FUD Microsoft has been spreading for years to try and keep people away from using open source. And one has to balance that with claims from Mindtouch’s CEO and the likes about the ease and record speed at which companies can deploy their open source offerings.

The second thing I noticed is that a lot of the sessions were about sharing information on how to use open source, how to manage open source activities in your company, how to successfully launch an open source project and create a community around it, the legal intricacies of the various open source licenses and their interaction with proprietary code.

There seemed to be a large amount of lawyers actually, both presenting and attending, as well as geeks and business people. Bringing these people together seems to be a characteristic of what open source does actually. 🙂

I should mention one talk from a lawyer on how to separate or “shim” proprietary code from copyleft code (typically under GPL). He mentioned that some people got the feeling that he was just helping companies avoid having to comply with the obligations brought by the copyleft license and gave some explanation of why this wasn’t the case. But I have to admit that I did not understand it.

All I can say is that having listened through all the techniques he suggests one uses to avoid the license contamination did leave me with the exact feeling he tried to render invalid. That is: 1) these are just tricks not to comply with the license, and 2) this is clearly going against the spirit of the license.

In summary, I think there was a lot of very practical information being shared rather than general debates on the good or bad of open source we used to have. I think this is very good and a clear sign of maturity.

As some of us remarked during the conference(s) we probably won’t have conferences dedicated to open source for much longer for that matter. Open source is poised to become business as usual.

March 26, 2009 Posted by | opensource | , , | 1 Comment

My take on why Microsoft finally decided to support ODF

People are a bit puzzled by today’s announcement that Microsoft will be adding native ODF support to Office 2007 and the timing of the announcement. People are asking: Why? Why now? Why not earlier?

Well, I don’t have any privileged insights so all I can offer is my own speculations but I think the answer might just be in the results of the ISO/IEC vote on OOXML.

Indeed, while OOXML has garnered enough votes to pass, several major countries including China, India, and Brazil among others, voted against it. It is safe to assume that, in accordance with the opinion the expressed through this vote, those countries will not adopt OOXML as a national standard either. India has already decided so for one. I know the same is true for South Africa. The same will probably be true for others.

Now, think about this for a minute. This is a huge market that Microsoft cannot address with Office as it stands. Can they really disregard a market that size? I don’t think so. If not, what can they do about it?

Well, they can keep trying to fight countries decisions not to adopt OOXML but if they haven’t managed to achieve that already, despite all the efforts they put in, including some rather unethical if not illegal ones, their chances of success on that front are pretty slim.

So, what else can they do? Balk. Finally admit the reality that ODF is here to stay and that there are many people out there that just won’t accept to be locked in anymore and try to save face by making it look like this is in line with their strategy… Fair enough I suppose. I don’t know how many they will fool but it doesn’t really matter.

Let’s not forget Microsoft is just a business trying to make money. They’ve proven in the past that they are quite resilient and can make radical changes when needed. This might just be one of those occurences.

Many of us knew that they were only gaining time anyway. Like building sand walls against the rising tide.

Let’s just now hope that Microsoft won’t try to play games anymore. Besides their rather poor track record at delivering on the ongoing chain of announcements about becoming open and caring about interoperability (as opposed to intraoperability), there are other reasons one might want to take today’s announcement with caution.

One trick they could try and pull for instance would be to put just enough support for ODF to claim that they support it but not enough for people to really use it systematically. They could then tell customers who complain something isn’t working that it’s because ODF isn’t powerful enough, and if they want the full power of Office they need to use OOXML.

That’d be a sneaky way to fulfill the ODF requirement set by customers and then force people into using OOXML anyway. Sneaky but not unlike Microsoft unfortunately. So, beware.

May 21, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , | 21 Comments

Clarification on what the Fast Track is really about

From the outset of the process several countries pointed out that OOXML was inappropriate for Fast Track processing and that it should be rejected and re-submitted to the formal standards process. This has since then be repeated again and again, by me as well as many other people, and I have no interest in rehashing that point once again.

On the other hand it appears to me that some people are getting confused about what the Fast Track is really about and what it’s not designed for.

JTC1’s choice not to listen to the countries that raised contradictions basically led it to trying to replace the multi-year standards process by a few months and a 5 day BRM. Predictably this has failed leaving many issues undiscussed, unresolved, or simply to be accounted for.

I said predictably because the Fast Track process is not designed to fix broken specifications, so it is no surprise that it failed short of achieving that goal.

The Fast Track process is merely designed to ratify specifications that already meet ISO standards criteria or are very close to. OOXML doesn’t, and for this reason alone, if nothing else, it shouldn’t be approved.

People should also remember that voting No to OOXML now doesn’t necessarily mean No forever. It simply means not yet, it is not ready – and there is plenty of evidence this is the case -. By voting No, people are simply giving the world a chance to fix OOXML before ratifying it.

As I stated before the world has nothing to gain from rushing OOXML through ISO. The only urgency here is not to rush into making this broken specification an ISO standard.

For what it’s worth, ISO/IEC officials’ response to criticism over the use of the Fast Track process has been that if people don’t think it is appropriate they should simply vote No. So you can take it from them: Vote No.

March 26, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , | 13 Comments

What Microsoft’s track record tells us about OOXML’s future

If the discussion on OOXML was purely technical I don’t think there would be much debate. Apart from Microsoft employees and a few lost souls, for whom we can only wonder about their real motivations, I have yet to meet any technical person arguing that OOXML is a good specification.

The reality is that from a technical point of view OOXML is just plain terrible and the body of evidence proving this point only keeps growing as people get time to review it. Antonis Christofides of the Greek delegation in his write-up on Some clarifications on the OOXML Ballot Resolution Meeting, sums it all up with “the Ecma responses make the text slightly better, but though slightly better it is still abysmal.

Given that, it means the only reason OOXML has even a chance to become an ISO standard is political. On that front I see two factors at play. First and for most is the extent of Microsoft’s powerful network built over the years which proves to be enough to, at least in some cases, skew the results in National Bodies. Second appears to be the belief by some people that by approving OOXML as an ISO standard they’re somehow bringing Microsoft to the table and taking control over the format.

It is this second point that I want to talk about here because I have no doubts that many well intentioned people fall in that latter category and I’m afraid they are badly mistaken. To be clear I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong on that front, but Microsoft’s track record leaves me no hope to see this happen.

Indeed, Microsoft’s track record shows that they never give away control and that they only use the standard process to appease customers’ fears by making them believe that everything is all right because their products are based on standards.

Let me share with you some personal experience on this so you can understand where I’m coming from.

At the time I was a W3C employee, in response to when Microsoft would fully implement CSS2 Microsoft’s representative once replied: “We will never do it. We have implemented what we are interested in. This is it.” Almost ten years later, this is still basically true. Yet, Microsoft at the same time kept pushing for CSS3 with new features they were interested in. What this told me is that they pick and choose.

Later, when I became IBM’s main representative at W3C and dealt with Microsoft to bring to W3C several of the Web services related specifications we were developing together I kept being confronted with the problem that while IBM leaned towards bringing the specifications early on to W3C Microsoft kept delaying this as much as possible. This kept me intrigued until one day my peer at Microsoft told me: “For us, the submission to W3C is the end of the road. What happens after doesn’t really matter.

I didn’t need to ask why. The explanation was obvious. Once the specification is submitted to W3C Microsoft can tell its customers that it is a standard. Technically it’s not, but if any customer ever cares to ask it’s easy enough to put their fear to rest by explaining that the process is started and it’s simply a matter of time. By the time the standard eventually comes out, customers are already using Microsof’s technology and no longer have much choice if they find out that Microsoft doesn’t even bother adhering to the actual standard. They are locked-in.

Now, someone I’m sure could point out that they aren’t the only ones failing to be fully compliant to a given standard and for that matter I’m sure somebody will quickly bring up a case where IBM is at fault. But while I believe it usually is accidental what I got from Microsoft tells me that in their case it is not. It is simply part of their strategy.

So, back to OOXML. I’d like to know what makes people believe this isn’t going to be the case here. I’d like to understand what makes people think that all of a sudden Microsoft has decided to play nice and relinquish control over the technology that constitutes its biggest cash cow, mind you.

Just looking at the their response to the comments that were filed for the BRM I can already see where this is going. In response to the lack of use of standard technologies Microsoft has generously offered to ADD many of these technologies. This is the case of SVG for vector graphics for instance, or ISO 8601 for dates. But while doing so they were very careful not to require implementation of these technologies, and they were very careful not to remove any of the technologies they actually use.

This is all Microsoft needed. They can, and I predict will, ignore all these additions which are optional and stick to what they have. The only reason they were added was to remove reasons for National Bodies to vote against OOXML.

You’ll note that in this case, because governments aren’t satisfied with a mere submission to ISO, it was important for Microsoft to actually get the ISO standard label. That’s why they chose the shortest way and put all their resources into achieving this goal at all cost.

If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, I predict that they will claim compliance with the standard overnight. Quite easy thing to do when the standard was custom made for your product and every modification brought to it was carefully carved out as optional. Then they will either ignore the standard process altogether and dump a new version every once in while through ECMA+JTC1, or pretend they care about the standard process to appease any possible discontents and participate in its “maintenance” while still ignoring it in its product. They will undoubtedly continue to pick and choose.

And what this means is that, if OOXML becomes an ISO standard next week, all the people who thought they were forcing them to the table will simply have given them carte blanche to abuse the ISO standard label.

I hope we’ll never have to find out but if we do, I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I’m used to joke about the fact that I’m always right, but in fact, it that were the case I challenge Microsoft to prove me wrong. I’d be much happier if they did, I just see no reason to believe it.

March 25, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , | 9 Comments

Clarification about ASF and OOXML

In case anybody misunderstood my blog entry “Let’s be clear: The Apache Software Foundation does NOT support OOXML“, I did not mean to imply that the ASF has any official position one way or another regarding OOXML.

My point was simply that Microsoft is misleading people in claiming OOXML support from basic XML tools and their parent organizations.

I don’t think anybody who actually read my entry could read it otherwise but I respect the sensitivity of some ASF people on the matter.

March 21, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , | Leave a comment

Full disclosure

Every so often I watch some financial program on TV and one thing I’ve always appreciated is the full disclosure policy they have in the financial world.

That is, when someone from the financial industry is being interviewed by journalists on what they think about a particular financial interest, be it a particular company or a specific sector, a chart is typically displayed disclosing any relationship the interviewee has with the financial interest he or she is speaking about.

The disclosure typically includes information such as whether the person owns stock in the company being discussed, whether his or her company owns that stock or manages a fund that owns that stock, etc.

This is something especially important to know given that if the person owns that stock and tells you to buy it, he or she will directly benefit from your purchase. It doesn’t mean that the expressed opinion is necessarily false or misleading, but it’s important for you to know there is a possible conflict of interest so that you have all the elements in hand to make your own decision.

Once the dust settles on the rubbles left behind by the OOXML debacle, as we move forward in the IT industry and reflect on what we ought to do to improve our standards setting process to prevent this type of abuse from reoccurring, I think we should look into globally adopting a disclosure policy similar to what the financial world has.

Looking at the people who’ve participated in the worldwide debate around OOXML I see two categories of people. There are those who are employed by a company, like myself, and who speak with that hat on clearly disclosing to the world a possible bias. Then there are those who talk without showing any particular affiliation with any interested parties involved. These people are either truly independent or simply hiding the ties they have. The problem is that we don’t know.

I should note that some standards development organizations already have such disclosure policy. When one joins a working group, he or she must disclose any relevant affiliation. But this needs to be generalized.

It is currently too easy for people to speak as if they were independent and use this pseudo-independence to influence uninformed people. Groklaw recently posted a story called “How to Get Your Platform Accepted as a Standard – Microsoft Style” with evidence that Microsoft, for one, has made this kind of tactic an integral part of its business development strategy. It is hard to read this and not wonder about Rick Jeliffe’s continuous lobbying and Patrick Durusau’s recent change of heart. Especially when everything they say becomes Microsoft’s new ammunition in a matter of minutes.

I think in the long run blatantly biased people discredit themselves and can only do so for so long. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and minutes to destroy it. Those who have been working on destroying theirs for months over OOXML have in my opinion little prospect other than specializing in the job of “pseudo-independent for hire”, with the inherent risk of seeing their value proposition diminish over time, as their game becomes more and more obvious to the world. But more subtle people may still go on for quite a while before being detected, if ever.

Of course a disclosure policy similar to what is used in the financial world isn’t bullet proof either. There will always be some room for game play by unscrupulous people and companies. But at least it would set some expectations and, just like in the financial world, the consequences when being caught to have failed to disclose any relevant affiliation could be far greater than they currently are. I’m not excluding judicial prosecution here. After all, the stakes are not that different than in the financial world and without being a lawyer I think anti-trust laws and others may apply.

Something to think about when considering ways to increase transparency in the standards development process.

March 20, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , | 1 Comment

Let’s be clear: The Apache Software Foundation does NOT support OOXML.

OK, I’ll admit that nobody has claimed otherwise. Yet.

But in these days and age you are never too prudent. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this or other similar fancy claim being published eventually.

Indeed, in its desperate and last minute attempts to convince National Bodies around the world that OOXML is happening anyway so they might as well support it as an ISO standard, Microsoft is eager to claim support by as many companies and organizations as possible.

As evidence, in its latest OOXML propaganda open letter Microsoft lists IBM among other companies as having “already adopted (or announced adoption of) Open XML in their products”. This, despite a clear explanation of the contrary by Rob Weir, published two months ago! Does anyone believe they haven’t seen it or heard about this? I sure don’t. And if there was any room for misunderstanding Bob Sutor’s statement filled that in.

A colleague in a foreign country even reported that in a National Body meeting he had been confronted by a representative from Microsoft who was trying to silence him via intimidation and insistence that IBM supported OOXML contrary to what he was saying.

Microsoft’s oversight of IBM’s denials is clearly not accidental. It is part of a well crafted and continuous disingenuous plan to convince NBs at all cost. There is already so much evidence of Microsoft going far beyond what most would consider normal lobbying behavior it is sickening. For one, I’m not ready to forget the case of the NGOs in India. Talk about dirty practices.

But what really is at the bottom of Microsoft’s claims is that basically any software that handles XML supports OOXML. While technically this is true to a certain degree, such a bold claim without any further qualification is pure misinformation. Obviously, one of the advantages of using XML is to make your format, whatever it is, easier to handle, it’s one of the fundamental benefits of using XML. But as I previously touched on in my entry on XML vs Open, there is a big difference between being able to handle XML files at the XML level and truly supporting the particular format at hand.

Supporting OOXML. cannot be merely declared on the sole basis that a software can read OOXML files, or store OOXML files. If that were the case, then any XML parser could be said to support OOXML and the Apache Software Foundation could be said to support OOXML because its XML parser, Xerces, can read OOXML files (one would actually have to unzip them first but it’s not like Microsoft would stop at that kind of detail). But it takes much more than that to really support OOXML.

One has to understand the actual structure beyond the XML representation and the semantic associated to each and every piece of data found in an OOXML file. That’s what the 6000+ pages of the specification are supposed to define, unfortunately they do that extremely poorly.

The good news is that I don’t think Microsoft is fooling that many people. Based on my own observation of Microsoft representatives and the way they talk to people they seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that they appear as if they think the people they are talking to are too stupid to see through their tired arguments. I’ve got news for them: people aren’t that stupid. Thankfully. And I’m hopeful the results at the end of the month will make that clear.

The other good news is that whether OOXML gets approved or not, I believe Microsoft will pay a high price for all of its mischief and its image will come out of this badly damaged, something they can only blame themselves for.

In the meanwhile, don’t take for granted any claims of support for OOXML from Microsoft. The fact that Microsoft claims IBM has adopted OOXML can only make one wonder about all the other companies they list…

March 19, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , , | 15 Comments

How many bad standards does one need in a given domain? Zero.

A lot of the debate around OOXML has focused on whether it is good to have competing standards or not. The debate started from the simple fact that Microsoft decided to create its own standard for office applications rather than adopt the established ISO standard for office applications: ODF.

While there is clearly a need for evolution and there are times when it makes sense to introduce a new standard to replace an old one there is no doubt in my mind that in general there is much more to lose from having multiple standards rather than a single one than there is to gain.

Interestingly enough I should point out that Microsoft defends that very point at times. In the case of XML for instance, when the W3C introduced XML 1.1 to address some internationalization limitations in XML 1.0, something important to many non-western countries, Microsoft voted against XML 1.1 arguing that the introduction of a new version of XML would be too disruptive!

Yet the tactic of introducing a competing standard to disrupt the status quo is common practice for the Redmond company. For instance, in the Web services management area, an area not so visible to the public as office applications but still very important to the IT industry, they did the same. Microsoft consistently refused to join the ongoing industry effort around Web Services Distributed Management (WSDM) at OASIS for years. They kept claiming that they had no interest in this topic. Yet, in 2005. after WSDM became an OASIS standard supported by a large segment of the industry mind you, Microsoft introduced their own technology named WS-Management, with support from some well chosen partners. Three years later the industry is still trying to figure out what to do with the mess they thus created.

But all this debate around multiple standards is somewhat of a distraction from the real issue at hand. In the end what is really being asked to National Bodies (NB) around the world isn’t to choose between ODF and OOXML, or to choose between ODF alone and ODF and OOXML. The question that NBs are asked to answer is whether OOXML deserves to become an ISO standard in its own right.

The reality is that if the OOXML specification wasn’t of such a poor quality it most certainly would have had a much easier ride through the Fast Track process. If all that could be argued against it was that it was too big, the IP license has gaps, and multiple standards aren’t good, this may not even have made headlines, no matter how true it is.

What is appalling about OOXML is that it is fundamentally a VERY BAD specification and I just can’t understand what process would allow this garbage to even be presented as an ISO standard up for vote. OOXML is from a technical point of view just terrible. All I’ve seen from it and all I’ve read about it only confirms this. And I have yet to meet any technical person arguing in all honesty that OOXML is a good specification. The latest facts reported by Rob Weir speak for themselves.

So, again, the real question isn’t so much whether the world would benefit from having several competing standards or not. The real question is how many bad standards do we need? And the answer is zero.

OOXML must be voted down simply because it is a bad standard.

March 19, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Conflict of interest

I wish I knew how to fix it but I don’t. What I do know however is that the ISO/IEC process is severally broken in that it is riddled with room for game play. I guess ISO/IEC managed to get away with it for a long time but things have changed now that Microsoft has shown how to use every loophole in the process to get to its end.

Hopefully, justice will prevail and OOXML will rightly get voted down at the end of the month but the process shouldn’t have allowed to go that far into this sad farce in the first place.

In the latest demonstration of how broken the process is the US V1 technical committee voted on Friday to recommend approval of OOXML in a 17-4 vote, where Microsoft and no fewer than 11 of its business partners voted in favor of the specification. Am I the only one to see a major conflict of interest at play in this?

Evidently the result of the vote simply reflects the make up of the committee and can in no way be trusted to represent any kind of objective evaluation of the proposed standard.

So, I have to ask: how can we ask someone to vote on its own specification? Has any submitter ever voted against its own submission? I actually don’t know if that ever happened but the conflict of interest is so obvious that I wonder why this was ever allowed in the first place.

My guess is that this same process usually works just fine because normally specifications brought up for ratification by ISO/IEC are the product of a standardization process which involves more than one interested party. In such a case, the standard doesn’t solely benefit one particular vendor but represents a compromise between stakeholders.

In the case of OOXML, the reason the process falls apart is I believe primarily because OOXML is the product of a single vendor and because this vendor is supported by a large ecosystem that can participate in what is nothing else than a hijack of the standards process.

To be fair, it is not clear that other standards organizations are immune to that type of scam but thankfully there aren’t that many Ecmas around ready to make it that much easier.

As I said at the beginning I’m not sure how to fix this problem. Given the possible intricacies of partnerships between companies of our modern world it is going to be hard to figure out a clear way to discriminate among the companies involved and decide whether they have a conflict of interest or not. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though. For one thing, it is not hard to make the call when it comes to Microsoft and OOXML. So, we could definitely do better than what we currently do.

At a minimum when there is an obvious conflict of interest, such as when asking Microsoft whether OOXML should become an ISO standard or not, the rules should make it impossible for the company to take part in the evaluation process.

When I was a kid I remember there was a TV show called “Eurovision” in which musical bands from various European countries competed with each other. The bands were given scores by judges from each country and the band with the highest tally won, a bit like what is done for ice skating. Although my memory isn’t very clear on the rules and all I do seem to recall that judges did not take part in the scoring of their own country band. This was clearly meant to lessen any risk of bias due to conflict of interest.

Maybe some similar rule should be used for standards ratification. Of course, the fact that a company can hide behind a pseudo standards organization such as Ecma makes this a bit trickier to figure out but, again, I still think we should try.

Note that the recommendation from the V1 committee does not necessarily translate in the final US vote. This recommendation now goes to the INCITS EB, for a 6-day ballot and resolution meeting, which will decide on the final position.

I can’t wait to be done with OOXML so that we can focus our energy on fixing the international standards process. If anything, what we’ve learned throughout this whole ordeal is that it is in need of a serious scrubbing.

March 9, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , , | 14 Comments