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Throwing stones at people in glass houses

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.

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Ben Langhinrichs 2006/07/28, 09:04

    Microsoft is falling into the classic trap of believing its own hype. If you can convince the rest of the world that your approach is better while frantically fixing the things that are wrong your approach, you can sometimes hit that sweet spot where your marketing and your vision and your reality are all in the same place at the same time. At least, that is what software development companies often tell themselves. What really happens is quite different.

    Usually in any project, there is a tendency for the customer’s expectations to get higher and higher and the developer’s expectations to get lower and lower. When the project is released to the customer, there is a huge divergence and lots of screaming. That is because there was inadequate communication and openness. If you have a well run company, they will avoid this issue by keeping everything as open as possible between the customer and developers, and setting expectations constantly to make sure that everybody is close together.

    So, Microsoft, which should know better, is treating this standards project the first way. They are pumping up the customer (the general public, companies and governments) expectations, while one can only guess that the development team is discovering all the nasty realities, such as the difficulty of writing an XML based almost directly on your binary implementation and then remembering it has to handle all the previous binary implementations. It may be that Open XML renders Office 2007 documents perfectly, because it is just the binary code exposed as XML, but will it handle .doc documents from Office 98. or will it turn out that it is easier to go to a well thought out general purpose XML standard (e.g., ODF) than to go to an XML standard that was designed explicitly for one binary implementation.

    In any case, those two visions are diverging, just as the Vista project expectations are diverging. Microsoft as a whole mostly hears the external marketing vision, and may itself be largely unaware of how divergent the visions have become, but they will learn.

    Meanwhile, ODF may be brusied and beaten up a bit, but every step happens publicly, so the expectations are on course. Of course, there are still a few ODF advocates who go around making stupid and outrageous claims about 100% fidelity will all older Office documents, which is silly. Let the reality speak for itself, and Microsoft will have to let its reality speak as well. Then we shall see.

  • Martin 2006/07/28, 17:53

    This is precisely why I value OpenDocument more than MS/ECMAOOXML. If someone needs the format updated or re-examined, it’s very easy to do so. Furthermore, one can use the format in any way they choose without worrying about being sued.

  • Anonymous 2006/07/30, 23:51

    [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]

    That also mean that you are free to post test-case for anyone to try.
    Heck, this doesn’t even prevent you from publishing a script that actually automate the run of the benchmark, so long as you don’t spoil the suspence by publishing the result :-)

  • Anonymous 2006/08/02, 07:03

    Well, FWLIW, AFA Office Suite Standards go, I would wonder if Microsoft is going to bring in the Microsoft Works users from the cold. I’ve encountered the frustration of trying to open a MS Works Word document in MS Office Word 2000, and it’s not pretty. That’s one office suite file format that exists in sufficient numbers to make a serious dent in any foolish claim that Microsoft’s Open XML file format is going to automatically cover every previous MS office productivity file format.

    Microsoft used MS Works as a cut-down low-octane productivity suite for sweetening the deal for low-cost PCs in the late nineties; you’ll find those self-same PC vendors selling their PCs with OpenOffice.org nowadays.

    Has anyone seriously tried writing an MS Works file format filter for OpenOffice.org? There must be thousands of PCs around in the Small Office/Home Office sector that may need some help in the not-too-distant future.

    Wesley Parish

  • Anonymous 2006/08/02, 17:51

    So, will the OpenDocument Foundation release the plugin they were beta testing for Mass. last May or will it get buried and Microsoft gets the opportunity to trumpet itself as the industry leader for ODF plugins (whether or not that is really true)?

  • Anonymous 2006/08/03, 03:09

    Wesley,

    Works is an interresting aspect. Does anyone know whether there will be MSECMAXML support for Works?

    I wonder whether an OpenDocument plug-in for Works is possible and has any value?

  • Anonymous 2006/08/11, 07:48

    FWLIW, I’ve decided that, since I’ve been the one making the stink about the OO.org support for MS Works file formats, I may as well roll up my sleeves and get down to work on it.

    Any hints, suggestions, brickbats, bouquets?

    Wesley Parish

  • Rob 2006/08/11, 09:30

    I’ve never seen a file format spec for MS Works. That’s the first hurdle. Perhaps the POI guys could give you a lead?

  • davidacoder 2006/11/21, 18:10

    Rob, I just realised that this was an old post long before the RTM release. It just showed up in my RSS reader as written today?!? Strange. Please ignore my previous comment about the RTM, it was obviously based on my confusion about the publication date of your original article!!! Sorry :)

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