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With Friends Like These – GNOME, OOXML, and ODF: A Q&A

On the first of this month, after reading about the original dispute between ODF advocates and representatives from the GNOME community, I had this to say:

Wasted almost an hour today watching this trainwreck of a line of commentary. Unfortunate, and unproductive.

It may not comes as a surprise, then, to hear that in the month that has revolved by since, I’ve done little but hope that the entire affair would blow over. To own the truth, I’d hoped to have nothing whatsoever to do with this.

But given the fact that the wound seems to be festering and smelling faintly of almonds rather than healing, I feel obligated to comment. In spite of the fact that officially I have no standing with either side, and it’s likely that neither is particularly concerned with what I have to say.

A reasonable mind might inquire, then, what the purpose of commenting at all is, if the result is destined to be ignored. My response to that is simply that I believe commenting to be the right thing to do, in this particular case; besides which, there is always the chance that the studied attention of relatively impartial third parties might encourage further rational discource between the opposing camps. A slight chance, anyway, which is all the justification I need for a Q&A. So herewith, one man’s take on the divide between the various community advocates.

Q: To start, the traditional disclosure statement: any potential conflicts?
A: Possibly more here than any other single issue I cover. From the commercial perspective, RedMonk customers include vendors both for (IBM, Sun) and against (Microsoft) the Open Document Format (ODF), and have been involved in consulting projects around the format and related applications. From the non-commercial perspective, I know personally and have great respect for many of the individuals currently at odds with one another. Detailing them all would take more time than we have here, but suffice it to say that I have ties that transcend the boundaries of the current dispute. Finally, usage. Over three years ago, I switched to a Linux desktop based on GNOME, and have been using that ever since. During that same time period, I’ve been a user of OpenOffice.org, and ODF has become our standard internal file format.

So make of all of that what you will.

Q: Speaking of the current dispute, would you care to summarize that for those who don’t track such things in detail?
A: Certainly. But first, a bit of background. The dispute centers, in my view, around the support or lack thereof the GNOME foundation has provided for the standardization process of OOXML. One level up, OOXML, or Office Open XML, is Microsoft’s alternative to the aforementioned ODF, which is backed by a number of Microsoft competitors. The GNOME foundation is the organization behind the GNOME project, a desktop effort that provides a windowing environment and related tools for projects such as Fedora, Project Indiana, Ubuntu, and others.

Q: Isn’t ODF the open source standard?
A: Well, in and of itself, it’s just a standard, and as such can be implemented by open or closed source software with equal facility. Practically speaking, however, the closest thing that the ODF standard has to a reference platform is OpenOffice.org, which is indeed open source. But be careful of falling into the trap of conflating open source and open standards – they are two very different things, with occasionally overlapping but ultimately different goals.

Q: Where does ODF stand currently relative to its Microsoft competitor, OOXML?
A: A complicated equation that depends both on who you ask and the metric(s) used; there’s a lot of history that can be dragged out depending on how much time you have to answer the question. For our purposes, however, the most salient assessment is the relative statuses of the two competing standards with ISO, the international standards body that plays a major role in determining governmental standards adoption among other functions. At this particular point in time, ODF is approved as an ISO standard and OOXML is not. As reported on by Andy Updegrove, in early September OOXML was voted on within ISO and failed to achieve the 2/3′s majority required. Microsoft and other OOXML backers then had until February 2008 to respond to the comments provided by voters, at which point another vote will be taken. That upcoming vote is effectively the basis for the entire dispute.

Q: How is that one vote responsible for the current situation? What does it matter, really?
A: Well, consider the stakes. The Microsoft Office file format has traditionally been the means of lock-in for the suite itself. That suite is, along with Windows, not only one of the two most successful software products in history, but essentially a license to print money. It is no exaggeration that there are potentially billions of dollars at risk should the popularization of an alternative file format lead to a decline in the sales of Microsoft Office. The market for office applications, after all, is still overwhelmingly dominated by Microsoft, but the thinking is amongst many that if the file format office applications write to is independent and not controlled by Microsoft, then Office would have to compete solely on its merits rather than the ubiquity of documents stored in its signature file format. Both Microsoft and competitors such as IBM and Sun know this, which is why they’ve all been waging a nasty behind the scenes campaign for the hearts and minds of politicians and standards bodies across the globe.

At this juncture, then, ISO certification and the governmental seal of approval that comes along with it is the principal trump card held by Microsoft competitors. Microsoft and its partners would seek to nullify that card by gaining ISO certification for OOXML, making both formats equally acceptable from an international standards body – and implicitly government – perspective.

ISO Certification of OOXML would be a significant blow to ODF, because as Office is the market dominant product at the current time, OOXML is the path of least resistance for Office users. The incentive to transition to ODF is minimal, unless it is accorded a unique and differentiating status in the eyes of standards bodies.

In short, then, there are billions of dollars of pressure on both sides of the ODF/OOXML debate. Backers of the former want ISO certification denied to OOXML, while supporters of the latter are campagining heavily for it. Which brings us back to GNOME.

Q: Indeed? How do they fit in?
A: GNOME, as mentioned above, is a desktop project, and as a result sponsors development – using the term liberally – in a number of desktop related areas. More importantly, GNOME is self-described Free Software; it’s About page includes the following:

GNOME is Free Software and part of the GNU project, dedicated to giving users and developers the ultimate level of control over their desktops, their software, and their data. Find out more about the GNU project and Free Software at gnu.org.

Some of you may see the dilemma already. Should a free software project pragmatically support a Microsoft backed standard? Or should it idealistically shun it, perhaps to the detriment of users of the project?

Whatever you or I may think they should do, the project itself chose the former.

Q: How did they support OOXML?
A: Well, here’s how the GNOME foundation described their participation in their statement responding to critics:

Jody Goldberg is the lead maintainer of Gnumeric, a GNOME-based spreadsheet application, a position he has held for seven years.

Before June 2007, he worked for Novell, representing them on TC45-M in order to obtain further documentation of OOXML during its review process. In June, Jody left Novell and proposed that the GNOME Foundation facilitate his work with TC45-M by joining ECMA as a non-profit.

We accepted Jody’s proposal to make sure that OOXML was documented enough such that FLOSS implementations were possible without a huge amount of pain (as experienced by those working on DOC and XLS binary format support). The decision to participate in TC45-M was made by the Board as a direct result of Jody’s request. It did not involve any third party influence or financial considerations at any point.

Jody’s last interaction with TC45-M was in July, to deal with the latest set of issues he submitted regarding charting and pivot tables. While he is not participating in the current activities of TC45-M (which is focused on issue resolution for the ISO standardisation process), our membership continues so he can participate in the next review period.

During his participation in TC45-M (via Novell and the GNOME Foundation), Jody has raised hundreds of issues with the documentation of the format, which will demonstrate a significant, material, on-going benefit to FLOSS implementations of OOXML and as a result, to users of FLOSS products that require such interoperability.

In other words, the support essentially was designed to ensure that OOXML could be effectively delivered within the context of GNOME software specifically and Free Software generally.

Q: So what’s the problem?
A: Well, there is a contingent of ODF advocates that feels that any support whatsoever for OOXML is essentially a betrayal of the aims of the Free Software community. Here’s a snapshot of that viewpoint from Russell Ossendryver:

Having Gnome team members promoting the agenda of its main opponent, however, is not only counter-productive but also reflects negatively on the project and its credibility. GNOME is supporting its main opponent by explicitly participating in the official Ecma / ISO process; by participating informally at the conferences; and, presumably, by participating inside of actual development. It seems that Gnome is becoming Microsoft’s catspaw to damage and slow down open source and open standards.

Beyond the negative impacts, it has also been implied that this decision to “support” – I employ quotes there because I cannot agree with that assessment as I’ll get to in a minute – OOXML has been influenced by GNOME’s corporate interests. An assertion disputed, of course, by the GNOME statement quoted above.

Q: I take it that you side with GNOME in this dispute?
A: I do. I understand, certainly, the hopes of ODF advocates that OOXML not achieve its desired ISO certification, because I can appreciate how much more difficult it will be to propagate that format if its on equal footing from a standards perspective. The failure of OOXML to achieve certification during the September vote surprised me, but opened in my view a window for ODF. Here’s how I described it then:

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.

Crucial as this window is, however, for the projects in question, I cannot support or condone criticism of the GNOME foundations current approach. I think it’s misguided at best and inappropriate at worst.

Q: On what grounds?
A: Well, to begin with, there seems to have been from the start a poor understanding of what work, precisely, the GNOME foundation was supporting. Some of the initial commentary, particularly on list, seemed more focus on the fact of the participation over the nature of the participation. The GNOME foundation is adamant that it “is not pursuing or assisting with ISO standardisation of OOXML.” Unless somebody can actively refute that with proof, I don’t see the substance.

Further, it has been implied by some ODF advocates that GNOME should seek to influence Jody’s work, and steer him in a direction away from addressing current OOXML shortcomings. Setting aside the technical aspects to the argument, which I have discussed with Jody in the past, this strikes me as unreasonable in the extreme. While it was obviously GNOME’s choice to support or not support Jody’s efforts subsequent to his exit from Novell, attempting to compel volunteer developers in a direction they’re not interested in is an effort doomed to fail.

Lastly, I think the approach recommended by the ODF advocates in this case is likely to negatively impact users of the GNOME desktop. Even should Microsoft’s bid to have OOXML recognized as an ISO standard fail, it cannot be argued that users of the GNOME desktop are highly likely to encounter OOXML formatted assets regularly, given the volume of Microsoft applications that will be generating them. Without the work of developers like Jody, who is to say that Microsoft’s format – which is documented by north of 6,000 pages – would be implementable within projects like GNOME?

If you believe that users should be the first priority and you concur that OOXML is likely to propagate itself to some degree irrespective of the outcome of the February review of comments, then logically the GNOME Foundation’s behavior here is quite justified.

Q: What would you say to critics that would argue that you’re a Microsoft shill, or less stridently, that you’re too accepting of OOXML and inadequately supportive of ODF?
A: Well, I’d (re)acknowledge that Microsoft is indeed a customer, but point out that our two biggest clients – those at the Patron level – are in fact IBM and Sun. So presumably I’d be shilling for them if I was shilling.

But it’s also worth revisiting what I’ve said on the subject of OOXML previously. In essence, that Microsoft is to be commended for opening its formats, but that ODF was there first. Microsoft’s behaviors with respect to its formats are as logical as they are unfortunate from a customer perspective. Here’s how I put it in September:

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.

In my perfect world, then, I’d acknowledge and support but one format.

But neither GNOME nor any other desktop is likely to see that perfect world. As a result, I believe that projects should at least ensure that users of F/OSS will have the opportunity to compete effectively in a marketplace that is likely to demand OOXML support.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Just that I’m not a fan of open letters, excepting those of the McSweeney’s variety. They rarely result in productive, rational dialogue in my opinion, and this as been no exception.

Categories: Open Source, Open Standards.

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

    The damage done by the argument seems worse than that done by any “support” for OOXML from Gnome Foundation … this has been a little disturbing to watch unfold.

    That said, I’m not comfortable with any support for OOXML by open source advocates – Microsoft again distinguishes itself not by the technical merits of the software/format but by its subversion of the ISO process (which has apparently had a negative on other standards submissions due to the non-participation of “participating” members newly-minted for the first OOXML vote who have no interest in anything else – making it difficult for anyone to get to 2/3). This mirrors the MS business model, which seems to be “do whatever it takes” … if I were one of Hugh’s ‘Blue Monsters’ I fear it would be difficult to reconcile my employment with the business model.

  • http://daveshields.wordpress.com dave shields

    I endorse Gnome’s participation, though not the reasons they offer:

    http://daveshields.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/xo-laptop-thinking-cap-on-the-xo-laptop-and-microsofts-ooxml-standard/

    thanks,dave

  • Ernest Rogers

    Steve, while I understand from what you said about what Gnome is trying to accomplish, I have to agree with some in the community that it is detrimental to us overall. Instead of playing by the commonly undersood rules to get ISO certification, Microsoft is instead changing the rules to get theirs, while ensuring that it will be next to impossible for any truly free software to implement their “ISO certified standard”.

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  • Mike

    Let’s not be so quick to give microsoft the nod. Their business practices based on a 25 year pattern should make you pause and think first.

  • http://totalimmersion.wordpress.com Jon Collins

    I pretty much totally concur with this view, and Gnome’s approach. As it happens I’m not sure Microsoft “invented” a file format in order to lock people in – I can remember back when I was working for a large government dept which was also a WordPerfect shop, and while Wordperfect could only read .doc files, Word could both read and write to WordPerfect, which (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) is a pretty good example of how opening up can actually help get people to use your products. Microsoft’s coup at the time was convincing people through marketing that MS-Office would work better on Windows than any competing product – this was clearly codswallop, but MS is by no means unique in over-positioning its products. Whatever – the strategy worked and we now have a desktop monopoly, a bit like Cisco has a near-monopoly on core networking, and SAP and Oracle own the enterprise apps space.

    The history of standards is dogged with true stories of how companies want their products to be adopted by ISO/ECMA/etc because it’ll put them in a stronger position. With ODF/OOXML we see Microsoft reacting to a Sun and IBM led initiative to undermine Microsoft’s incumbent place in the desktop market, aided and abetted by the wider community. The reasons for the big companies to be involved are commercial, not altruistic – though of course there will always be a feel-good factor. C/f the green IT initiatives springing from the hardware vendors right now – if they were so keen, why did they not kick such things off decades ago?

    One of the impressions one can get from the high level view is that open source and Microsoft are, and indeed should be arch-enemies. Microsoft hasn’t helped itself at all in this regard, but is waking up to the fact that we’re not going to see Windows everywhere. Or indeed, has already woken – but some vestiges of this attitude remain. That’s just tough on Microsoft, and thank goodness, because to be honest the thought of waking up with an alarm tone created in Redmond, and with an animated paperclip telling me, “you appear to be hung over. Would you like to:…” would have me running, screaming to the door. Meanwhile however, we are seeing Linux everywhere – in places that would have Bill and Steve’s eyes misting over – at home, we have Linux phones (the Motorola RAZR – who knew?), my D-Link router and Intel RAID box (the shame! What happened to Wintel!), and my soon-to-be-purchased hard disk video recorder. In the real world, and on a number of counts, Linux has already won, and there’s not a wizard to be seen.

    But this isn’t about increasing acceptance of open source; rather, undermining the commercials of a company with what happens to be a well-accepted, good product. If it were up to me, to do this ODF thing right I would not be painting Microsoft as the bad guy, though they are by no means perfect. Instead, I would be putting my head, shoulders and back into making OpenOffice a world class word processing, spreadsheet and presentation platform – which, frankly, right now it most certainly isn’t (its not bad, but its about 3 years behind). I would give it features and functions Microsoft could only dream of, make it the most stable, expansible platform on the market. I would also make it a publishing platform that offered true wysiwyg – something that continues to elude the boys in Redmond. All of this and I would enable it to read and write OOXML natively, so that it offered a transparent, direct transfer between the two platforms. Going back to my WordPerfect days, we would then have something a bit closer to a fair fight based on functionality, rather than this standards debacle.

    Jon

  • Jim Powers

    I can understand and sympathize with those who support GNOME’s participation in the ISO/OOXML work, but, in the end I think that it will do more bad than good.

    Firstly, it is well known that Microsoft engaged in a number of, at best, unethical tactics to try to get OOXML approved at all costs. Namely by ballot stuffing. Now, as alluded to in the post IBM, sun and others are completely capable of unsavory acts behind the scenes, but no such acts seems to be necessary to get ODF approved by the ISO. Perhaps this is not a big deal to you, but it certainly is to me. As a result the ISO has a bunch of dead wood P-level members that don’t plan on showing up to conduct the “normal” business of the ISO. They were simply “incentivized” to show up to “help” get OOXML through. It didn’t happen. This is all well documented by Andy Updegrove and is an absolute shame.

    Secondly,

    RE: I’m not sure Microsoft “invented” a file format in order to lock people in

    The first of the “Halloween documents” was the document that exposed the “embrace, extend, extinguish” plan on the world. I can’t find the documents at the moment, but there are numerous quotes from them all over the net including much detail in Wikipedia.

    Some of the stuff can be found here with analysis:

    http://www.michaelrobertson.com/archive.php?minute_id=65

    Thirdly, Microsoft has no obligation to conform to OOXML now or in the future. Not only that but it is also well documented that the specification documents are deliberately incomplete and do not cover already proprietary extensions already in use. In other words trailing behind the OOXML standardization process is a fools errand ALREADY. Not to mention that Microsoft has not given assurances about what kind of patent protection is going to be part of the, incomplete, OOXML specification. Like the “settlement” with the EU anti-trust affair Microsoft simply needs the feather in it’s cap of having the ISO standards, after that all bets are off and you can bet that “licensing” of future OOXML will be discriminatory against FLOSS, just like the EU settlement. So, after all is said and done GNOME gets everyone all in a tizz over its paticipation, even though it is trying to do the “right thing”, only for the FLOSS world to wind up back at square one reverse-engineering MS file formats because Microsoft has no interest in playing the “open” card.

    Finally, Microsoft has within its power an EASY way to show a sign of good faith participation in dealing with “open standards”: they could EASILY implement an ODF reader/writer in their office suite and inter-operate with ODF compliant software instead of forcing the world to chase them. How ’bout it Microsoft?

  • Rui Miguel Silva Sea

    Without the work of developers like Jody, who is to say that Microsoft’s format – which is documented by north of 6,000 pages – would be implementable within projects like GNOME?

    Your words seem to imply that “with the work of developers like Jody OOXML will be implementable”.

    I am sure you may think that, but Jody’s work ended in July, and the documentation I read of OOXML as my duties under portuguese TC-173 is that it is impossible for it to be implemented.

    There are hundreds of clauses that Microsoft says are absolutely essential for backwards compatibility, and at the same time says are not required for implementors when faced with critics for their lack of information.

    It’s like saying “A” and “NOT A” at the same time. Did you study logic? You know what A and NOT A mean, right? A FALSE statement.

    People: you have to stop trying to think of Microsoft as an honest person. They’re not. They’re an amoral entity with only one duty: increase shareholder value.

    Anything that hurts the advancement of open standards when faced with their faked standards increase their value.

    Stop giving them the benefit of doubpt, not even courts do it, right now (US and EU already considered them guilty of predatory behaviour).

  • Russell Ossendryver

    I read you entry with great interest and I must say, not only as an ODF advocate, also but like the hundreds and hundreds of ODF advocates, we are also very strong FOSS advocates. Your post seem to segregate the ODF people from the rest of the community. That is wrong; most who are involved in ODF also participate in many FOSS projects.

    There is a problem in general when one has to join a membership-only industrial standardization organization (ECMA) to get documentation one might need to work on. Adding to this point is the fact that OOXML is positioned in a way such that only MS can make changes to OOXML (whenever and whatver they like). So straight off the bat, OOXML is closed, as apposed to ODF, which is developed by a large group of Institutions, businesses and individuals through OASIS, which MS is a member of. Microsoft is still more than welcomed to join in and help develop future versions of ODF. It is open to all. And let us not forget MS portfolio of patents and their vague pledges not to sue…

    Then I have a concern that GNOME as a FOSS foundation would choose to participate in a process plagued by Shenanigans of all types (from buying off votes, e.g. in Sweden to stuffing National Boards and other unethical behaviors and basically jamming a format threw the standard process, one which does not belong to just one and might only be one because they have omnipresent power to do so.) I personally HATE seeing GNOME giving credibility to this process which is damaging Open Standards and associating themselves with it. You do not seem to have a problem with that.

    You state that “ISO Certification of OOXML would be a significant blow to ODF” I would somewhat agree with that. A lot of people, however, will see OOXML as a “fake standard” and will still move ahead with ODF adoption. But the other side of that statement is that “IF OOXML fails ISO Certification it would be a significant boast to ODF”. Increased ODF adoptions is good for free software, adoption of free software and innovation is good for the Free Desktop. So GNOME participating, whether intentionally or not is giving some arguments for, the “perception of
    support” for MS to SPIN to help them with ISO which based on many of your comments is not the best thing. Not only is it “I think it’s misguided at best and inappropriate at worst.” but a strategic mistake for the free desktop and the community at this time. ODF can simply be the biggest event in FOSS history to help FOSS deployments. Playing with this potential gain for the community at this time, in my mind is plainly stupid.

    I do not wish to elaborate on all the ways Gnome is “supporting” OOXML, or at least not at this time.

    We have lived without .docx for our whole lives. We still don’t receive any and can wait a few more months to worry about the few free desktop user who might need OOXML support. In the mean time they can ask for people to resend any documents in .doc or better yet the ISO approved standard ODF.

    Lastly, Mr. O’Grady, I have communicated with you personally and stated that the “Open Letter” was not the best move and this whole thing could have been handled more tactfully. However, seeing GNOME’s statement, I am not sure that would have resulted in a different outcome. But where I have a problem with your entry is I also asked YOU for ideas on how one can bridge this divide and handle problems like this in the future with the community, the “smelling faintly of almonds”. I suggested a “FOSS Community Resolution Forum” and a “FOSS strategic alliance”. Yet you do not answer those question but post an entry which only can add to the “smell of those almonds.” Not very helpful, Sir.

    FOSS is strongest when communities collaborate, acting diametric to the complete community at large can only make it weaker. That is why my letter asked for “It is time to unite the community behind the standard, universal format for office suites and distance themselves from Ecma TC45 and DIS 29500.”

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  • http://totalimmersion.wordpress.com Jon Collins

    @Russell interesting stuff. Re: “We have lived without .docx for our whole lives. We still don’t receive any and can wait a few more months to worry about the few free desktop user who might need OOXML support.” I think this is where the debate may fall in the future, in that real users will vote with their feet.It would be very interesting if, like with XP/Vista, Microsoft was pushed to revert to the .doc standard due to customer pressure, I believe this is a far more likely scenario than ODF winning the standards battle.

    I don’t personally believe that people should be adopting ISO standards just because they’re ISO standards, otherwise we’d all be running on X.400 right now… and as I’ve said previously, I don’t believe any large IT company can claim to be whiter than white in the standards game. As for Sun and IBM’s tactics with OpenOffice, does anyone really believe they are doing it for altruistic and not commercial reasons? Can we expect to see Open Sourcing of DB2, WebSphere and Tivoli next? Of course not.