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IBM Joins OpenOffice.org: The Q&A

Reveling, as always, in my “you heard it here last” role, I bring you the not so breaking news that IBM has officially joined OpenOffice.org. The collective reaction to which has been generally positive, if lamenting the time it’s taken to get to this point.

Despite the late hour, this is a decision of some magnitude, with some non-obvious implications. Given that, I thought I’d take a few minutes to explore some of them in greater detail. Via a Q&A, of course.

Q: Before we begin, anything to disclose?
A: Absolutely. Both IBM and Sun are RedMonk clients, as is Canonical, whose CEO Mark Shuttleworth was quoted in the press release. On the competitive front, portions of Microsoft are also RedMonk clients. More specifically, I’ve been involved in both consulting work on related subjects, as well as a format advocacy conference.

Q: Does that impact or otherwise bias your analysis?
A: As always, we at RedMonk attempt to address the question of bias via transparency, feeling that by disclosing any and all relevant relationships that might have bearing on a given topic readers will be well equipped to determine that for themselves. And if they feel that we are or have been biased, they’re more than welcome to comment publically to that effect on the document itself.

The work does impact my analysis at times, however, given that there are areas where I am still restricted by confidentiality agreements of both informal and formal natures. I’ll try and be clear when that’s the case, but it must be understood that if there are areas where I cannot be as forthcoming as the reader might like, that’s the likely reason.

Q: Who have you spoken with concerning this announcement?
A: Officially, only IBM. IBM AR’s Harvey Walseth has been diligently trying to connect us for a week, but travel interefered with a full briefing. Fortunately, IBM’s Don Harbison caught up with me last Friday and got me up to speed.

Q: As an attendee of the Open Document Format summit, are you biased against OOXML?
A: The best means of describing my feelings with respect to the question of format are that I’m pro-user, and while Microsoft and I continue to respectfully argue the point, it’s my belief that users are ill served by multiple document formats. Ironically, Microsoft’s monopoly has been good for users in this single area: they’ve had one document format that became, by virtue of the product’s success, a de facto standard.

But with Microsoft championing OOXML – as is its right, certainly – and IBM, Sun, and others pushing ODF, we appear headed for a reality in which users will be receiving documents with file format extensions that they’ve never seen before and that their software cannot read natively. I’ve already seen this with people in our industry. I shudder to think what it will be like within the real rank and file of enterprises and governments across the world.

If Microsoft had standardized OOXML prior to the introduction of ODF, it is very likely that I would be favorably disposed to the format – with some technical reservations. But as it happened, ODF was collaborated on and standardized well in advance of OOXML and has more competitive implementations behind it – though on a volume basis Microsoft has a far wider base behind it. At least in theory, as DOCX is not widespread as yet.

Therefore I maintain the position that I have all along, which that with respect to document formats, we already had one.

Q: Ok. Just for the few that haven’t seen the news, can you gist it for us?
A: Sure. Basically, IBM is joining OO.o, and contributing some of the derivative and refactored code its developed over the past few years. More importantly, they’ll be actively contributing going forward. That’s the short version.

Q: And what is your reaction?
A: It’s excellent news. It’s actually something I’ve been working towards for some time, as much as it can be said that one who works for none of the organizations in question can be said to be working on it. This piece was written, in fact, towards this specific end.

Q: So you don’t think it’s too little, too late?
A: No, it probably is.

Q: So why is it excellent news?
A: It’s entirely dependent on the frame of reference. When people ask the above question, it’s usually in the context of the office productivity suite market. And from that perspective, the IBM news is welcome for Microsoft Office competitors but not likely to alter the landscape in any immediate fashion.

IBM, OpenOffice.org, Sun, and company had a major window of opportunity prior to the introduction of the last rev of Office, because that release a.) fundamentally reshaped the classic UI users had become used to, and b.) it was a file format inflexion point for customers. Not to mention the fact that there was widespread frustration with the release cycle and Software Assurance agreements.

But the various interested parties did not capitalize on this window, save by stealing a march in the standardization game, which admittedly is paying significant dividends now.

Q: But that still doesn’t explain why this is excellent news…
A: My frame of reference differs significantly from the above. I asked back in February, actually, whether or not Office and OO.o even mattered. It was tongue in cheek, because they obviously do, but I don’t think either one will be the center of gravity as Office has traditionally been. Too much productivity has migrated away from those tools, to email, to wikis, to workflow systems, to a variety of tools.

Even more fundamental shifts in document consumption and construction, ones enabled by the XML nature of the formats themselves, are ahead. As I wrote back in ’05,

What’s brand new with the advent of the ODF and its Microsoft counterpart the Office Open XML Formats are the implications vis a vis the ability to manipulate documents programmatically. With the advent of these formats, we could see the advent of far more intelligent messaging, workflow, etc systems because they’ll have the ability to deconstruct these documents at very granular levels.

It was this belief, incidentally, that led me to request invitations for several wiki and email providers to the original ODF Summit. Invitations that were mostly declined, regrettably, but made for the right reasons. At least as far as IBM seems concerned. Witness Doug Heintzman’s comment in his interview with Andy:

In this new paradigm, what we think of as a document becomes a container – a container that’s filled with what you might think of as fragments. Those fragments can be linked through semantics to rich media of many sorts. We’ll be able to work with those fragments dynamically in exciting ways. If we’re clever about it, we’ll be able to link these fragments, whether they be text, or graphics, or widgets, back through to their sources. We’ll have a different way of looking at things, and of working with those things.

In other words, I think IBM’s contributions to OO.o here are immensely important not because they’ll alter the office productivity software market, but because the office productivity software market is and will continue to change of its own accord.

It’s my guess that it will be very important very soon to be able to take the code apart, and put it back together again in interesting ways to do brand new things, and IBM’s already done that, in a manner of speaking. So this is significant news.

Q: So why now? After all this time, after “missing the window” as you put it, why would IBM make this decision at this juncture?
A: Partly to target the opportunities mentioned just a moment ago, and partly because there’s a second window. Apparently Doug Heintzman confirmed this notion to InfoWorld, saying that the recent ISO setback for Microsoft is “certainly related” to this announcement. Having missed the office suite window, the question now becomes what the ODF crowd can do with the time it has while Microsoft regroups to try and sufficiently address the comments to achieve ISO standarization for OOXML.

A strengthened reference platform that enjoys across the board support there is a good step in that direction.

Q: But what took so long?
A: This is the one area in which I’m rather circumscribed with respect to what I can discuss. I’ve touched on the subject before, and beyond that all I can say a.) I don’t know the full story, and b.) what I do know is “complicated.” As these things always are, much as we might wish it would/could be different.

Q: Anything else to add?
A: No, I think that’s quite enough for the moment. Other questions? Drop us a line.

Q: One last question then: what of the speculation around donating some sort of email productivity tool to OO.o to enable it to compete with Outlook?
A: I’ve been recommending this, absent the OO.o context, for a while now.

Categories: Open Source, Open Standards.

  • http://aqualung.typepad.com/aqualung Ric

    Despite the lateness of the move, it will still be good to get the IBM stuff back into the core OO.o product – I recall there is some useful ‘segregation’ of code done by IBM, which will facilitate separate re-use of functions.

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  • carl

    I sent a document using Open Office to my PC at work but microsoft won’t allow me to open it. Could you let me know how?

    Thanks,
    Carl