I work in a house with glass walls. Not literally, of course. The cost to air-condition such a house would be prohibitive. I mean that working on standard in OASIS is a public act, with process transparency and public visibility. The public doesn’t see merely the end-product, or quarterly drafts, they can see (if they are so inclined) every discussion, every disagreement and every decision made by the TC, in near real-time. Our meeting minutes for our TC calls are posted for public inspection. Our mailing list archives, where most of the real work occurs, is there for the public to view. The comments submitted by the public are also available for anyone to read. This information is all archived from when the TC first met back in 2002, all the way to the discussions we’re having today on spreadsheet formula namespaces.
One result of this openness is that it is very easy, trivial even, for our critics to simply read our mailing list, look for a disagreement or discussion of an issue, and repeat our words, usually out of context. Cut & Paste. This is certainly the most efficient way to criticize ODF since it minimizes the amount of thinking required. However, this is a bit tedious, especially when this is applied so asymmetrically, as I shall now explain.
Ecma TC45, the committee producing Office Open XML (OOXML), does not operate in such a transparent manner. They do not have a public mailing list archive. They have not published their meeting minutes. The comments they receive from the public are not open for the public to read. The public has no idea what exactly the TC is working on, what issues they think are critical, whether the TC is in unanimous agreement, whether there is spirited debated or whether Microsoft dominates and determines everything. The fact that they have not yet sent OOXML for an Ecma vote is proof that believe the specification is not yet ready for standardization. But we know no details of what exactly is lacking, what problems are being fixed or, more importantly, what defects are being allowed to remain.
And in this way, the ODF-bashers take advantage of our openness, while holding their deliberations in obscurity. They throw rocks at our glass house while hiding in the shadows.
So this openness at OASIS has an apparent downside. But honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for any alternative. Making a standard, especially one this important, is a privilege, not a right. The public deserves to know how a standard is made, the same way and for the same reasons they deserve to know how legislation is made. I relish this scrutiny because I know it makes us stronger.
Sun’s Simon Phipps has posted his keynote from the recent OSCON conference. The topic was the “Zen of Free” and, among other goodies, Phipps lists 5 requirements for “full support for fully open standards”, of which I quote the 4th, since it states the point better than I have:
…the standard [Phipps here speaking generically and not about any specific standard] should have been created transparently. Just as an open source community looks with concern on a large, monolithic code contribution, so we should be wary of standards created without the opportunity for everyone to participate or, failing that, with a full explanation of every decision that was made in its construction. Without that there’s a chance that it’s designed to mesh with some facility or product that will be used to remove our freedom later.
Another way to attack openness is to do it with legal restrictions. For example, we’re seeing many references to a year-old performance evaluation of an atypical spreadsheet file, and using that to make the ridiculous claim that the ODF format itself is too slow. I’d love to dispute that claim and show it for what it is. I’d love to show that for most common document sizes, ODF documents are actually smaller and faster to load and save than OOXML documents. I’d love to show you all this, but I can’t. Why? Because Microsoft won’t let me. The only implementation of OOXML is the Office 2007 beta, and the End User License Agreement (EULA) has this language:
7. SCOPE OF LICENSE. …You may not disclose the results of any benchmark tests of the software to any third party without Microsoft’s prior written approval
So, our critics can quote benchmark results about ODF running in OpenOffice, but we can’t quote numbers about OOXML running in Office. They can read our mailing lists and quote us discussing ODF issues as we address them, but we cannot even see what they are working on.
What should we make of all this? I suggest that no specification is perfect. That’s why we have version numbers. The question you need to ask yourself is: what leads to a better specification, full and open public discussion and scrutiny? Or something rushed through behind closed doors? You know what the issues with ODF are, and you’ll continue to hear the same small list over and over again. But this is a shrinking list, as the ODF TC experts address these issues. But do you know what the issues with OOXML are, the reasons why Ecma TC45 has not yet put forward their specification as an Ecma standard? What do their experts say when speaking candidly about their specification? The public simply doesn’t not know. Do we assume silence means perfection? I don’t think so.