The era of closed formats is dead is a friendly interview with South African standards activist Bob Jolliffe. I enjoy being in the same room as Bob, not least because for once some else gets their name constantly mispronounced: I think I counted three different mispronunciations from the same person in one day! I believe that both our names come from the Chaucerian English for jolly: fat and happy.
What I particularly like about Bob is that, if you read the interview, he is concerned with establishing requirements for interoperability and substitutability, and encouraging ODF, rather than slagging off MS or OOXML. I do tend to categorize people as “enablers” and “disablers” (not that these are permanent or unqualified vocations), and I certainly classify Bob as an enabler, even though we have different opinions on OOXML. But I don’t think we have particularly different opinions on ODF. Bob (who has been representing South African standards for the last couple of years at SC34) is now participating on OASIS ODF TC, and I think it is really important for government stakeholders to get intimately involved. I have repeatedly called for more government and stakeholder participation in standards groups, and I think Bob’s involvement should be a model for other governments who are wanting to make open standards mission critical.
It is clearly just the next step, that when a government starts adopting open standards, it also needs to develop expertise (Bob’s comment that there is an issue of scattered expertise is interesting), in particular in order to be able to make hard-nosed evaluations about the state of the art in implementation and on profiles.
I would have titled this “Bob Jolliffe gets it” (like Neelie Kroes gets it: “Standards are the foundation of interoperability.” and The Norwegians get it ) because I agree with pretty much everything in Bob’s answers (to the extent that I feel I could have written some of it!) but for the paragraph
One of the big dangers I see is the proliferation of backend office software which is so tightly coupled with single vendor’s office products. The promotion of open standards-based procurement of electronic document management systems is an urgent challenge.
Which goes further than I do, at the moment. I certainly agree that public government documents (in and out) should be in open standard formats, and that for that use OOXML is extraneous given the availability of ODF: however I think it would be better to think in terms of a hierarchy HTML, PDF, ODF with ODF as the last resort for publishing government material at least. (And I don’t see any harm in multiple formats being provided including the original native format of a file, for example OOXML or SVG, as long as the broad-reach standard was also available.)
However, for internal and specialist document systems, to the extent that I have a formed opinion it is that I suspect that functionality still has to trump standards support, until it can be proven that the standards meet the functional requirements. This is not to say that open systems will have to have a higher standard of scrutiny or QA than the old closed proprietary systems, but rather than functional-compliance requirements do not go away merely by deciding that you need standards-compliance, unless there is specific objective evidence that the one is fulfilled by the other.
(Oh, and I think Bob is technically wrong that IS29500 is not now an ISO standard. It has been approved by ballot so it is a standard; it’s publication has been delayed. The result of a successful appeal would be for it to be withdrawn as a standard (and still not published). )
UPDATE: Bob mentions the South African government’s Minimum Interoperability Standards (MIOS). It is available here (PDF) This extends the normal definition of open standard to include a requirement for multiple implementations: I think this is a mistake of naming (a standard is not open because of its implementions) but the correct requirement for procurement (a technology is open if it allows substitutions): what they should say is “open and mature” standards where multiple implementation is a property of maturity not openness. I think that is just fuzzy thinking that causes unnecessary squabbles: confusing issues doesn’t help thinking them through clearly.
I would severely criticize it for being entirely W3C Schema centred, including support for WSDL, and consequently a tool of one set of vendors. No explicit mention is made of ISO Schematron for example. How on earth does the requirement that XML Schemas should be used for data interoperability square with the fact the ODF has a RELAX NG schema not a W3C XML Schema? The trouble with making unnecessary restrictions is that then you have to turn a blind eye to wherever they are impractical, and turning a blind eye introduces an element of arbitrariness that goes against good government.
However, by the time you get to section 2.7, it turns out that RELAX NG is allowed. And it requires GML which has some Schematron schemas IIRC. Perhaps Schematron can creep in as a kind of XSLT? (Obviously because this is a minimal guideline, it is not exhaustive, so my criticism is unfair to that extent!)
I see that no versions of XSLT or XSD or XML (or most things) are mentioned: it would be interesting to have some idea about why versions don’t matter. And I see the list includes MPEG and ZIP. How do they fit into given the definition of openness? Anyway, these are all the practical issues that Bob will be grappling with.