Over the last few years I’ve noticed that I go through periods of intense writing and periods where the words seem to stumble reluctantly from my fingertips. The last month or so has been one of those latter periods, a time better spent planting the seeds rather than harvesting the grounds. No doubt I will move out of that period, I always have in the past, but if the posts seem fewer and farther between of late, t’is only that there are ideas coming to germination here (I hope).
The Canadian economy continues to hum along; I’ve become a net seeker after talent rather than a talent to be sought, and am discovering how thin on the ground good development talent has become. In British Columbia, the IT unemployment rate is roughly 1.75%, which is absurd - IT is by its nature a field where there are always people coming off assignments or just taking a break from the fairly intensive grind of producing software, so in many ways its healthiest state seems to be at about 4% unemployment. At 1.75%, projects are being cancelled because there aren’t enough competent programmers to be able to complete them, and competition for programmers begins to get extraordinarily silly.
I gave a talk recently at the Canadian CIPPS conference, which is one of the trade groups for the Canadian IT industry, and I found the conference itself to be something of an eye-opening experience. There’s a move here to certify senior IT professionals in much the same way that engineers and other professionals are already certified. It won’t keep people out of the field (with luck), but it will serve to establish a baseline of technical competence. I’m not necessarily a fan of all forms of certification … in too many cases it simply provides a way for a given vendor to create a captive evangelist, usually at their customer’s expense … but I find as I get older that I get impatient with people who don’t have at least a reasonably solid sense of technical acumen passing themselves off as being technical experts.
In the US such a certification process would likely never work - not so much because of the strengh of software professionals themselves (sadly, most software programmers are far too independent to ever even contemplate unionization even though in my experience engineers in almost all other professions have long since discovered the advantages of collective bargaining) but because every training company out there wants to become the de facto standard for certification and won’t work together with any other. In Canada, on the other hand, there is a considerably smaller IT infrastructure, and a much greater understanding of the benefits that such collective standardization brings.
The Canadian mindset is instructive in this regard. There is competition in Canada, but I find it ironic that I’ve never seen a truly free market except in Canada. The US model, especially in recent years, has had a tendency towards being free in name, but typically monopolistic in practice, because the government for the most part has become a tool for the corporations with the largest pockets to essentially wipe out any potential competition. In Canada, on the other hand, there is a recognition that the IT industry is just that - a collective of companies in an industry - and the market for that industry is remarkably fragile unless everyone works together.
The dangers in not standardizing, and of this endless bickering between companies seeking some form of “competitive edge” are also becoming obvious with regard to the recent decision on the part of ISO to adopt the Open Document Format as a key standard for office documents. (http://www.odfalliance.org/press/AllianceRelease3May06.pdf). The United States lost its competitive edge in the cell phone market because there were too many large cell-phone vendors in that country that refused to agree upon a universal standard for telephony, to the extent that there is roughly a five year gap (and it’s widening) between cell phone technologies in the US vs. Europe or Asia. I suspect that the ODF vs. Microsoft’s red-herring XML formats will prove to be another example of such - Microsoft will likely continue to fight ODF as hard as it can, and may very well be able to forestall it’s coming for a time (although the recent victory for ODF in Massachusetts may raise a question about even that) IN the US.
However, with the ISO adoption of ODF, it is far more likely now that agencies and companies in other countries will likely re-examine their backlog of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Powerpoint presentations and start asking themselves just how much of their intellectual property is wrapped up in these (aging and increasingly poorly supported) formats, and how difficult it will continue being to get access to the contents of these applications in any reasonable fashion. The questions of licenses will also arise, especially IT managers start asking themselves what will happen when MS Office 2007 comes out and they are forced to upgrade yet again, especially for services which are for the most part unneeded. Will there be service packs to get one of the most significant feature of MS Office 2007 - the full XML support - into older versions of Office? I see it as unlikely. WIll you see third party (and likely free) ODF import and export filters into ALL versions of Office? Yup.
I don’t see ODF as an argument for Open Office - its one of the better tools out there, but with these formats in place, you will see something you haven’t seen in the Office marketplace in more than 15 years - true free market competition, brought about because you have a level playing field, an open standard, and a reasonably free distribution mechanism. That’s not, ironically, going to mean a lot more office suites. Such suites existed largely for economic and marketing reasons. Instead, I suspect that ODF is going to quietly start appearing in specialized editors and applications as a transfer and archival format. What about an application for doing business intelligence analysis that saves files out to the ODF write and spreadsheet formats? Slide-shows that are generated as part of free-floating brain-storming tools. Business reports generated automatically from financial information.
The fact that there is an underlying XML basis there, one that DOESN’T rely upon some proprietary embedded binary crap to be functional, means that ODF may very well become a de facto browser document editor standard, as is the case already with Google’s Writely - and it opens up the possibilities inherent in compound XML documents with mixed namespaces readily coexisting.
More important, however, the simple existence of such a standard is going to significantly open up the ability to free schools, government agencies and yes, even companies, from the upgrade treadmill and from the guarantee for any one company that they will have solid revenues in perpetuity with comparatively little need for real innovation. Standardization is an ongoing process, and essentially sets up the foundation for the next level of innovative explosiveness, and with ODF I see the standardization of the business process changing the dynamic of the computing industry significantly.
Of course, given that, Microsoft’s best course of action may be to accept the ODF standard themselves, but I don’t see that happening. Instead, they will fight to keep their market, most especially in their home turf within the US, so that while this innovative renaissance is happening in Europe and South America and Japan and even Canada, the US will fall farther and farther behind until they become a distant ran even there, and enough companies opt out of the Microsoft game to remain competitive in the world marketplace that the market tide turns by the weight of that shifting momentum.
I’ll be shifting my own focus back to XForms in the next couple of postings - continuing the series I started earlier this year. I’m becoming more and more excited with the evolution in this space, and I’ll explain why next time.
Kurt Cagle is an author and CTO of Metaphorical Web, in Victoria, British Columbia.