When OpenOffice went to the Apache Software Foundation I started writing a post about this topic that I never got to finish and publish.
The post from my colleague Rob Weir on Ending the Symphony Fork prompted me to post this now though.
I should say that I no longer have anything to do with what IBM does with ODF and anything related. I’ve changed position within IBM in the Fall of 2010 and now focuses on other things such as Linked Data which I may talk about in some other post.
In fact, I’m now so out of touch with the folks involved with ODF that I only learned about OpenOffice going to the Apache Software Foundation when the news hit the wire. I had no knowledge of what was going on and have no insights as to what led to it. Similarly, I only learned after the fact about IBM deciding to merge Symphony with OpenOffice.
So, if anyone wants to blame me for speaking as a person on IBM payroll, I’m not even going to bother responding. This is entirely my personal opinion and I’ve not even talked about it to anyone within IBM.
But let me say quite bluntly what Rob is only hinting at: It’s time for LibreOffice to rejoin OpenOffice.
LibreOffice started from a sizable portion of the OpenOffice.org community being tired of Oracle’s control and apparent lack of interest in making it a more open community. I certainly understand that. But now that this problem is solved, what does anyone have to gain from keeping the fork alive?? Seriously.
While forks in the open source world can be a tremendous way of shaking things up, they can also be very damaging. In this case, I think it’s a waste of resources and energy to keep this going. Instead of competing with each other the LibreOffice and OpenOffice communities should get together to fight their common and real competitor.
I know a certain level of competition can be healthy but I’m tired of seeing open source communities fight with each other to their own loss.
I know the fork was painful and people still hold a lot of angst against one another but they need to get over that. They need to realize they would do themselves and everyone else a real service by putting all this behind them and uniting. LibreOffice should declare victory and join forces!
Among the standards principles IBM announced on September 23rd, there is one that is particularly dear to me (surely because of my current responsibilities at IBM but also because of my background with W3C). This principle is what we refer to as the principle of “Global Application”. It reads:
Encourage emerging and developed economies to both adopt open global standards and to participate in the creation of those standards.
Despite what the OOXML proponents have been claiming for the sake of their own benefit, having multiple standards for the same task doesn’t do anybody any good. Multiple standards means market fragmentation and duplication of efforts. Market fragmentation and duplication of efforts mean less choice and higher cost.
As we move forward we must learn from the past while not letting it get in our way. We must ensure that standards are developed in such a way that all stakeholders can participate and feel compelled to do so. This is essential for all requirements to be addressed but also for everybody to have a sense of ownership. Both of these elements are key to the adoption of the standard by all.
I consider the case of the Uniform Office Format (UOF) a perfect example of our failure to do just that. What was it that led China to create its own format rather than work with us on expanding ODF so that it addresses their needs? Their work started with a fork from OpenOffice mind you. So, why weren’t they at the table with us?
We need to understand what went wrong and ensure that this doesn’t happen again. For everybody’s benefit. Failure to so will result in more pain for everybody, just like the pain we are experiencing with UOF.
The situation with UOF is now that China is trying to gain support from vendors like IBM. These vendors would like to play in the Chinese market but they have already heavily invested in ODF and are understandly not too keen on the idea of spending resources on UOF. They would rather see China adopt ODF. But ODF doesn’t quite fit China’s needs. So, efforts are being made towards a possible convergence of the formats but these are merely damage control that remain costly for all.
And this is not all. The Global Application principle cannot be separated from the principle of “Implementability” which reads:
Collaborate with standards bodies and developer communities to ensure that open software interoperability standards are freely available and implementable.
Indeed, one of the major barriers to global adoption by developing countries of the so called “international standards” is the toll on implementing them. Whether it is about paying just to access the document or about paying royalties to foreign companies for patents that read on the standard, the price tag this constitutes is just not acceptable to emerging countries. They already face enough challenges otherwise.
The European Commission as well as countries like India are trying to move the ball by developing policies that restrict public procurement to “open standards” which they define as being royalty free. This is provoking reactions from various organizations that want to stop this movement. Their main contention appears to be that we’ve been developing standards for decades on a RAND basis and adopting a royalty free only policy will rule out hundreds of existing standards and products. I say: tough!
It’s about time that we recognize that the way we’ve been doing standards isn’t going to work anymore. And we just cannot expect the world to be shackled by the way we’ve been doing things in the past.
Traditionally, IT standards have for the most part been developed by the western world and then pushed onto the rest of the world. A RAND based system might have been fine in an environment where the odds were balanced by the fact that all parties had more or less similar stakes in the game. But this doesn’t work when you add a bunch of new players who find themselves at the table empty handed.
So, it’s not surprise that the rest of the world is telling us “No, thanks”. Can we really blame them?
Those that cling onto the old ways are part of the past. The future simply cannot be based on a grossly unbalanced system that gives a hudge advantage to some parties. Getting rid of the toll on implementating standards is the price to pay to see them globally adopted. Failures to recognize that simple fact and attempts to derail the trends set by the European Commission and the likes are simply a waste of time.
My lawyer made my day this morning. Not just because he does a great job, I’m used to that and that’s why he’s my lawyer. The reason he made my day today is because the document he just sent me is in ODF. 🙂
We’re talking about a small office of three lawyers with a couple of assistants in the South of France. For several years he’s been sending me all his documents in MS Word format. I’m not sure what made him change but it’s not because I told him to do so. I don’t think I ever mentioned anything about ODF to him or his staff.
In any case, no matter what the actual reason for the change is, I find it uplifting. The fact that such people, who are not part of the industry and not versed into the whole document format debate, are getting equipped with software such as OpenOffice and start using ODF is a clear sign of change.
The type of documents they produce in that office, as in many other offices if not most I’m sure, is just pure text with a little formatting. They really have no reason to keep buying licenses for MS Office for this.
I think it is this type of grassroot movement that will make the difference in the end.
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.
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.
I’ve become aware of various efforts focusing on addressing the difficulties users are going to have dealing with two formats: ODF and OOXML. One such effort even aims at creating a standard way of converting documents from one format to the other so that it could be done consistently.
All this might seem commendable at first sight but I have to ask: WHY???
Why are people doing this to themselves? Why are governments doing this to their citizens? Why are companies doing this to their customers? This is: Why creating these difficulties in the first place?
In essence the story goes like this: 1) we have one standard format for everybody to use, 2) instead of helping out make this format successful for the benefit of all, Microsoft creates its own competing format for its own and sole benefit, 3) this creates a mess, which the world has to figure out how to deal with. Thank you, Microsoft.
I already explained that if Microsoft really cared about legacy documents they would have opened up their binary format. They could also join the ODF TC and submit a proposal on how to extend ODF to support documents in their legacy binary format. Something they could have already done using ODF’s extension mechanism by the way. Now, that would really be helpful. And there would be no mess to deal with.
We can simply avoid all this by rejecting OOXML and forcing Microsoft to adopt and support ODF. No, it’s not impossible. Microsoft is merely counting on the fact that customers will let them get away with their misbehavior (once again). But if customers massively demanded ODF support and held off buying any new license until this happens, Microsoft would have no choice but to comply. Customers decide in the end, with their money. And governments, especially, play a crucial role in this regard.
Microsoft is making a mess which will only benefit them and their partners at your expense. Don’t let them.
One thing I should have added to my previous entry is that I believe the reason some people think the tool is more important than the format is because they are confusing the means from the end.
We use tools to achieve specific tasks. Because the tools are what we are primarily interacting with, tools take a prominent role and some people end up thinking that the tools are what matters most. But I believe this is wrong.
The tool is merely a means to an end. The end being to capture, create, process, communicate, and share information. The information is the end game, not the tool. Making this distinction is fundamental. The tool is merely what we use to manipulate the information which is really what we care about.
In this context, having a standard format that can represent the information is tremendously more important than any specific feature a particular tool may have. In fact, having a standard format enables the information to be manipulated using different tools, allowing you to change tools based on your needs and what is available. This in turn leads to having more features at your disposal.
This model is undoubtedly more powerful than being stuck with a single tool, not matter how great that tool may be at a given time, and depending on a single vendor to provide you with all the features you may need or want. Having a standard format enables competition which leads to more innovation and greater tools.
I know not everybody agrees with that last point; some people think that standards stifle innovation, but I disagree and plan to discuss this in a future entry.
At Goscon last month, Jason Matusow of Microsoft, stated that what matters most is not how information is stored but how you access it. According to Jason the real value is in the tool and this is what you should worry about; the format used to store the information is an implementation detail.
I understand why Microsoft would say that in light of the increasing demand for open standards like ODF. When you enjoy a quasi monopoly status you don’t necessarily want to open your formats and enable competition. But it remains that this argument appears to me as terribly retrograde and at odd with the era we’re in.
Contrary to Microsoft’s claim, I think the tool is no longer the center of interest, the information is. When I made that point at Goscon somebody in the audience applauded and I’m confident that this view is shared by many people but experience shows that what I think is common knowledge is often not. I’ve also learned that only through repetition things eventual sink in. So, I want to discuss this a bit further. Hopefully this will have some value even to those of you who are already convinced.
We’ve all used tools that function like black boxes. You use a specific tool to generate information, and you use that same tool to retrieve that information back. The information is literally imprisoned in some form of storage only known to the application you’ve been using.
When you think about it, if you create a book using Microsoft Word, even though the content of the book is yours, you are not free to access it the way you want. You can only access your own book through Microsoft Word.
But this is a model of the past. It was ok when all we did was to create documents that lived on one computer and stayed there, when sharing a document meant to print it and mail or fax it. But this is no longer acceptable in a world where information is primarily destined to be shared via some digital media, email or other.
The web has demonstrated the power of separating the way the data is represented from the application we use to access it. It is thanks to standards like HTML and CSS that we can all browse the web independently of what computer and browser we use. It is thanks to these standards that people can use whatever hardware and software they like to create and deliver web pages.
Similarly, having been using ODF for a while now, I’ve experienced first hand the pleasure of being able to try new tools as they come out, and switch tool depending on what I’m doing and my liking, all the while without having to convert my documents from one format to another. It may sound like I’m preaching but it is very real. Freedom is exhilarating!
There is no doubt in my mind that people who have had a taste of the freedom provided by this new model of separating the data format from the application will no longer accept the old model. They will no longer accept a model that ties their information to the application they happened to use to create it.
Those of us who are old enough to have known the old model will keep wanting more freedom, and the younger crowd will simply expect it. The future generations will demand it, and will reject anything that doesn’t respect what is fundamentally a right. The right to access YOUR information the way YOU want.
There is an important point I want to make about what people need to consider when contemplating whether to move to ODF or not.
Some people seem to think that the choice they have is to either stick with the status quo – Microsoft Office -, or disrupt the status quo and adopt ODF, with the assumption that the former is easier and a more natural progression than the latter.
This is missing a very important point: OOXML is NOT the status quo, it is a NEW format, just like ODF. As such its adoption presents challenges very similar to those of the adoption of ODF.
OOXML, just like ODF, requires a migration.
Moving to ODF, means deploying new software, training people to that software, developing support for it, etc, plus disrupting your work environment by introducing a format not everybody may be ready to deal with. The cost of that migration is undoubtedly the biggest barrier to the adoption of ODF. Yet, the same applies to OOXML.
Indeed, moving to OOXML means moving to the new Microsoft Office application, training people to it, developping support for it, etc, and, just like with ODF, disrupting your work environment by introducing a new format.
Even though I don’t have actual numbers to back this up, I think it’s fair to say that the incurred cost ought to be similar on the migration front. Given that, and considering that there are several freely available offerings for ODF, I’ll then venture to say that migration to ODF is actually likely to be cheaper because it saves you from having to pay Microsoft Office license fees.
In a desperate attempt to disrupt the momentum behind ODF Microsoft hurried to create a standard they could claim to support. Yet, this new proprietary format in disguise faces the same challenges as the format they are trying to stop: cost of migration.
So, remember that when it’s time for you to choose. The choice you have to make is not between adopting a new format ODF or sticking with Microsoft Office. It is between migrating to ODF or migrating to OOXML, both new formats, ODF being an open standard for which offerings are freely available.