Remembering George the Animal Steele! Why the Open Source community should support an ISO Office Open XML standard (or, at least, not oppose it!)
Why would Open Source developers want to support Open XML becoming an ISO standard? Isn’t it from Microsoft, the great Satan? Isn’t is some kind of trick or trap to stop nice Open Standard ODF? Are we going to let this chance to overthrow the monopoly escape?
Now there have long been two different camps in the Open Source movement: those who think that it is important to have independent APIs and those who think that it is important to have Open Source clones of the most important proprietary APIs. This latter group is of course associated with Novel and the Mono effort is a good example: on their history, I don’t think they have much problem with Open XML going through ISO (Gnumeric’s Miguel de Icaza fits into this latter camp.) So this blog is more addressed at the first camp.
First, I would like to set the scene. I think the reasons for supporting Open XML at ISO become a lot clearer if we take a fairly hard-headed view of what is possible. Which is perhaps a nicer way of saying that I think some of the anti-Open XML case has been built on naively faulty assumptions about the miraculous power of ODF to disrupt Microsoft.
- No office suite or utility can afford to ignore any important format for long. So in a year’s time, every major office suite and utility (whether open source or not) will support ODF and Open XML, whether or not Open XML becomes an ISO standard.
- No vendor will adopt, as their default save file format, a format which does not support their particular feature set. So the only way that MS would make ODF its default file format would be if (when) it is improved to support Office’s feature set. (Support for Office’s feature set was not a design goal or activity of ODF’s development. See the second item in the minutes of the first ODF meeting for example. Or see ODF’s Gary Edwards "http://about.diigo.com/about/show?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.consortiuminfo.org%2Fstandardsblog%2Farticle.php%3Fstory%3D20070629070544217">comment that “There is no possible way anyone can claim that today’s OASIS ODF TC would welcome Microsoft and make accommodating changes to the specification!”)
- The poor state of ODF implementation by Open Source applications means that a too-fast adoption of ODF will backfire for Open Source developers. So paradoxically, supporting mandatory ODF too soon would be the kiss of death for open source ODF: bureaucrats will test applications and, finding them lacking, be forced to buy into a new generation of closed source tools (MS Office, IBM Lotus, Word Perfect, Sun Star Office.). If governments mandate ODF, it won’t exclude MS Office, in particular, and MS thinks their new GUI and features are competitive against other implementations, of course.
- No matter what format you use, the only way to get 100% page fidelity (apart from some good-as-read-only format like PDF) is to save in the native save format and re-open the same file using exactly the same application on exactly the same operating system configured exactly the same. ODF won’t give instant interoperability in the sense of full page fidelity; I’d expect the same would be true of Open XML on different platforms too.
Putting it all together, it means that there was never a chance that Microsoft Office would or could adopt ISO ODF 1.0 as its native and default format. So the real choice that faces us is whether we want Office to generate files in a format that MS controls with very few external checks (with all respect to Ecma) or to generate files in a format that MS instigated but which has the extra checks and balances that come from being an ISO standard. ISO standardization is not an Aladdin’s cave of democratic rights, and it is not a Pandora’s box for Microsoft, but it is way better than nothing. Because that is what the anti-Open XML people would achieve: no controls on Microsoft. Under the guise of supporting ODF.
If you, like me, are in the position where you don’t use MS products in your normal work lives, then you may not feel any urgency to support Open XML, but I think we at least should not oppose it. It is a good step forward.
We often read that Microsoft is doing this as some kind of sinister ODF spoiler. However, Open XML is a path they have largely been forced to take (though obviously they will try to make the path as beneficial to them as possible) in order to fend off continuing anti-trust problems in Europe: Microsoft went down this path after a very strong hint from the European Union: in the same report that recommends that ODF be submitted to ISO, the EU’s ‘Telematics between Administrations Committee’ recommended that Microsoft should consider the merits of submitting XML formats to an international standards body of their choice as well as improving the documentation, IPR issues and going all the way with XML.
I certainly support governments mandating that public documents should use standard formats: HTML and PDF being the primary two, and ODF after that, but also Open XML as a second source. However, having an ISO Open XML does not prevent any government from preferring ISO ODF. ISO standards are what are called “voluntary”, which means that they are not like laws where you have to adopt them. In my view, the drivers for ODF will continue unabated even after/if Open XML becomes a standard.
So, in my jaded view, ODF will not make Office go away, ISO ODF will not make Ecma Open XML go away, and ISO Open XML will not make ISO ODF go away. So I see no downside in Open XML becoming an ISO standard: it ropes Microsoft into a more open development process, it forces them to document their formats to a degree they have not been accustomed to (indeed, the most satisfactory aspect of the process at ISO has been the amount of attention and review that Open XML has been given), and it gives us in the standards movement the thing that we have been calling for for decades (see my blog last week that compared what Slashdotters were calling for in 2004 with the path that MS has taken).
In the 80s, there was a hilarious wrestler called George the Animal Steele. He was incredibly hairy, especially on his back, which was supposed to be emblematic of his sub-human state. His great flaw as a wrestler was that just as he was winning he would be distracted by the turnbuckle, often trying to eat its stuffing while his opponent recovered. I guess this is how I feel about the attempts to stymie Open XML at ISO: just as we have victory in our hands, with MS prepared to go XML and standards, along comes this distraction, ODF, which is great in its place but dumb, unworkable and counter-productive as a Microsoft buster.
I’d like to make two other minor points. The first is that ODF, HTML and Open XML all do markup “wrong”: the more that markup is done in semantic terms, the more that it has value and can be repurposed. While ODF, HTML and Open XML have various mechanisms to allow the addition of nice XML fragments (XForms, Custom XML Controls, etc.) their basic markup is highly presentation-oriented and low value. So we shouldn’t get confused that somehow one is particularly more virtuous or high-level than the others.
The second point is that what the XML-in-ZIP formats do is allow much easier pipelines, where the office suite or application is just one stage in the process. So when thinking about these formats, the primary user of ISO Open XML is not a rival suite developer, who pretty much has to be underwritten by a large corporation, but it is the small developer and integrator. What Open XML represents is a way for small Open Source (and other) developers to get more reach into the systems that MS for years tried very hard to keep out-of-bounds.