Sunday, February 11, 2007

OOXML and Open Standards

We can trust Microsoft to be always up to some interesting tricks. They recently tried to get members of the International Standards Organization to rush through approving a 6000 page document on Office Open XML (OOXML) and submit their comments on the same in 30 days! What does one say to this? My colleague Tom Rabon, from our US office put it best when he said that the longer a dead fish stays out of the freezer, the more it stinks.

Microsoft's urgency in putting the sheen of an "open standard" on OOXML may be understandable but for a soveriegn country like India, standards are not something to be decided on a whim. Standards are the foundation on which we build our National IT infrastructure and we need to be careful that we build them on open standards that are free of royalties and other encumberances. If data is stored in proprietary standards, India could end up paying a toll for accessing its own national data.

The Bureau of Indian Standards, which votes on India's behalf at ISO said that they have not received the documents and therefore could not vote! [1]

The ODF Alliance requested ISO to resend the documents with a copy to us. We built up political pressure on BIS to request more time to study the document. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) sent a strongly worded letter to the IT Minister and other policy makers, pointing out that there was no need for an alternative document format since Open Document Format was already accepted as a standard by ISO after a four-year long review process. The Kerala Chief Minister sent a letter stating that Kerala had already decided to adopt open standards like ODF and did not see merit in a single vendor controlled "standard" like OOXML. The Free Software Foundation of India also supported the move for a more thorough review of OOXML.

If OOXML does benefit India, great. But, we are a democracy and in the spirit of a democracy, let there be a debate around OOXML and its merits and demerits. Above all is the question, "Is OOXML beneficial to India in the long run?" Standards that are decided behind closed doors stink and do not merit the title of "open standards."

BIS finally voted on the issue and was among the 19 countries that submitted their vote by the deadline of 5th February 2007. What they submitted has not been shared with us yet. Hopefully, they have asked for more time to review the document. That is the least they can do.

A few days later, 8th February, to be exact, I got a call from a head hunter, asking if I would be interested in joining Microsoft. thanks for the compliment, but the answer is "No. Thanks."

[1] Reminds me of a scene from the eternal classic BBC series, Yes Minister

Hon. Minister Jim Hacker: (in an aggravated tone) "What do you mean, 'we are looking into the matter'?

Derek Fowlds, Secretary to Jim Hacker: (in an apologetic tone) "It means, 'we have lost the files and are searching for it.'"


Albert Zonneveld said...

I am not surprised that someone from an OSS company that distributes OpenOffice is against a format that is used in MS software.
ODF is bonded to SUN trough their CNS (only valid for ODF version in which SUn participates) and their inclusion of native Java objects in ODF.
So when looking a a vendor related format ODF is also bound by the Sun participation for future versions.
If IBM of Google buys up Sun then effectivly IBM or Google controls ODF development by virtue of the intellectual property rights used in the standard.
Microsoft can never follow by fully commiting to a format that has such a leverage of a competitor over it even if they would remotely consider it!!!

there is plenty of reason for at least two formats but alone the fact that organisations can choose which format they want (the Sun controlled or the MS controlled) will be an important reason.

Doug Mahugh said...

I don't understand your comment that Microsoft "recently tried to get members of the International Standards Organization to rush through approving a 6000 page document on Office Open XML (OOXML) and submit their comments on the same in 30 days!" Are you familiar with the ISO process and the JTC 1 directives that define the process the BIS is going through? Microsoft has no more control over that process than you do, Venky.

If you have an interest in the Open XML formats, why not talk to respected Indian technology firms that are working with the formats, such as Sonata or AztecSoft or others? Or avail yourself of other opportunities to learn more. For example, I gave a deep-dive technical presentation on Open XML at Linux Asia two weeks ago, and we had a lively conversation with the attendees about why there's a need for Open XML in addition to other document formats such as text, HTML, PDF, RTF, ODF and others. You should have been there, we would have welcomed your participation in the discussion, which included a variety of perspectives from India's public and private sectors.

I strongly agree with your statement that "for a soveriegn country like India, standards are not something to be decided on a whim." I hope India, like all countries, will look carefully at the facts and ignore the kinds of political pressure and strongly worded letters that you've described.

- Doug

Venky said...

Albert, I have been described as an open source evangelist who happens to work for Red Hat. What I am saying is not dictated by the chair I occupy, but by the convictions that I hold.

I will argue that a soverign country like India should adopt standards that are set by a broad-based industry consortia, that give users complete freedom to encode and decode file formats, has gone through a thorough evaluation and is unencumbers by patents, copyrights and royalties.

ODF has gone through a detailed review process whereas the 6000 page OOXML document has not even been read by anyone I know. till such time, it has been reviewed thoroughly, India should tread with great caution. Why should India review a 6,000 page document in 30 days? What's the tearing hurry?

As for having two office file formats, imagine having two HTML formats! Thanks to the noble efforts of people like Tim Berners Lee, we have a unified standard that benefits more than 700 million Internet users today. Let there be a thorough public evaluation of the standards and may the standard that benefits India win!

The Wraith said...

You said:
"As for having two office file formats, imagine having two HTML formats!"

A big difference is that html is placed on a webserver and read by the public. Office documents are a lot different in functionality and distribution and in the way that documents from a long time ago can contain vitally important data (like notary documents).

Also the situation with html is also an example of standards stifling the innovation. Things like flash and shockwave are so popular because normal webstandards do not allow such extensive website manipulation.

Venky said...

To Doug and "The Wraith"

To go back to first principles, what we are arguing is that public data should be in public formats. Citizens should not be compelled to buy proprietary tools to access their own data. Using open file formats that are not encumbered by patents, royalties etc and can be freely implemented (in open source or proprietary tools) is a must for ensuring that the data can be accessed at a later date. Some forms of documents (like land records) may need to be accessed even 400 years from now. To have these records locked up in proprietary formats could be fatal.

I disagree with the conclusion that standards like HTML stifle innovation. proprietary file formats like flash and shockwave may always exist but as far as creation, storage and archival of public documents go, I would argue that the Indian government should steer a wide berth around proprietary formats.

Wayne said...

Venky, Albert, Doug, and The Wraith,

Your apparent lack of understanding of the situation is amusing. First, I should mention that I do not work for an OSS company. Nor do I work for a company like IBM or Sun that feeds off Open Source.

I am a Real Technologist, not a computer person. I design machines and the ancillary equipment that is used with them. I design manufacturing processes to make the machines, and the ancillary equipment. I sell the products. In terms simple enough for any of you to understand, I innovate.

Now we've got Venky, who says he's for open standards, but doesn't seem to know why. Then we've got Albert, Doug, and The Wraith, who are for what they say is an open standard, but isn't. To quote Puck in a Midsummer Night's Dream, "What fools these mortals be."

I'll try to keep the rest of this to words of two syllables or less so I don't strain anyone's intellect.

I sit on a variety of standards committees. I don't really want to, I have other things I'd rather do with my time, but I am forced to. If I don't some dimwit will try and get something adopted that is duplicative, single sourced, or downright idiotic. This happens a lot. There are more fools, knaves, cretins, thieves, and outright jackasses in this world than I care to think about.

OK boys - so someone in the automotive industry decides to innovate, and designs a 14.5" wheel and tire, and it's installed on a new car. Now you've got a tire that can only be replaced from one vendor (because there's a patent on that size of tire). The vendor charges 3 times the price of a 15" tire, because it's a VERY special tire, and your tire blows in a city where no one sells that tire. Pretty damned stupid, isn't it?

Wacko Electric designs and patents a new light bulb, that only fits Wacko sockets. The socket and bulb are sold to home builders at half the price of a standard socket, but the bulbs are sold to home owners at 5 times the price of a standard light bulb. Pretty damned stupid, isn't it?

OK you say - I don't know anything about computers. Wrongo boys. I learned programming on an old IBM using punch cards. Haven't used Fortran for 35 years, but I still program - hell I can't trust our programming to some idiot who doesn't know a widget from a gadget, or why either one works.

Problem is that the compiler I used 25 years ago is not compatible with compilers made today. There go years and years of development down the drain.

And damn - guess what? My backups are on 8" floppy disks. No computer today comes with a floppy disk drive. If I have an old 8" disk drive, no computer built today can run it. Maybe I got lucky, transfered from 8" to 5.25", then to 3.5", and then to CD, and now to DVD, so the source is still available. It won't compile without a major re-write because the languages have changed. Oh, and Tweedle Dee Compiler Company innovated proprietary extensions into their product. Jerks.

And that doesn't even take into account the CNC programming I've got on punched tape still. Someone "innovated" punched tape readers out of existence.

I don't use .DOC files. I learned my lesson when Word 95 came out, and wouldn't read my older format files.

HTML and text are pretty safe. ODF is documented well enough that if I had to I could write my own word processor, and contrary to Albert's assertion that it is controlled by Sun, it isn't. With a 6K page specification for Open XML writing my own word processor is not feasible. And of course there's the patents.

So if I want to keep a formated document ODF is really the only choice.

Now I know that thinking is not something any of you are used to doing, or are comfortable with. The idiotic comments here demonstrate that. But you should learn how, even if it does hurt.

And I suspect it will hurt a lot.


PS: I use Windows XP for my business. I personally preferred Windows 3.1 (it was more stable), but heck, it won't run on today's hardware either. And of course one of my best apps was for Win3.1, nothing like it is available today, and I haven't the time to write a replacement. I did write a data file export routine (which worked really well), but the software I am using now was designed by a software architect, which means it's brain dead and runs like crap. My old app was written by and engineer who knew the processes, and what was needed. Yeah, the interface didn't look fancy, but it worked and worked well.

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