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Document Format Punditry

Rick Jelliffe, Mr. Schematron, who blogs for O’Reilly, recently announced that he had been contacted by Microsoft to see if he would be interested in a contract to edit the Office Open XML (OOXML) and Open Document Format (ODF) Wikipedia pages. As Rick says,

So I was a little surprised to receive email a couple of days ago from Microsoft saying they wanted to contract someone independent but friendly (me) for a couple of days to provide more balance on Wikipedia concerning ODF/OOXML. I am hardly the poster boy of Microsoft partisanship! Apparently they are frustrated at the amount of spin from some ODF stakeholders on Wikipedia and blogs.

I think I’ll accept it: FUD enrages me and MS certainly are not hiring me to add any pro-MS FUD, just to correct any errors I see. If anyone sees any examples of incorrect statements on Wikipedia or other similar forums in the next few weeks, please let me know: whether anti-OOXML or anti-ODF. In fact, I already had added some material to Wikipedia several months ago, so it is not something new, so I’ll spend a couple of days mythbusting and adding more information.

This immediately brought on an avalanche of commentary, on his blog, and elsewhere. As someone who also blogs on ODF/OOXML topics, I’d like to say a few words on the subject of document format punditry.

Few of my readers know me personally. They only know me via my words. Their acceptance or non-acceptance of this blog and what I say is largely determined by their perception of these two dimensions:

  • Authority — Am I an expert? Am I writing about things that I have direct knowledge of, or through education, training or direct experience would be expected to have worthwhile insights on?
  • Orientation — Do I have a bias on the subject being discussed. I’m not using the word “bias” in a pejorative sense, but to describe how far one’s views vary from a neutral, journalistic point of view, to a view that is overtly partisan on a particular issue. Bias is expected in opinion pieces, but not in Wikipedia articles.

My blog clearly comes with an expert, pro-ODF orientation. Additionally, I try to keep it light and humorous so even if a reader disagrees with me on one issue, at least they will be amused.

Looking at the range of people writing on these issues, I see the landscape something like this:

  • We have a number of highly informed experts in ODF and OOXML who aren’t really talking to each other.
  • We have the press, trying to be neutral, but having difficulty figuring out the significance of the technical issues since they are rather esoteric.
  • The General Public, who won’t even hear about the issues until the press figures it out.
  • And then we have various degrees of extremists of all varieties, not easily classifiable. Their writings are backed by ideological more than technical arguments. There are important ideological issues at stake in this debate, so these are voices are important.

What we seem to be lacking is the expert, neutral technical commentary. This is not too surprising. Many of the experts took sides a long time ago, or decided to sit this one out. That is understandable. But without this center of expert commentary, the press will continue to report the biases of whatever side they happen talk to first.

Where does Rick fit it into this chart? His expertise is undeniable. But if he takes Microsoft’s money he risks losing his reputation for neutrality. That is his choice and I am in no position to fault someone for that. He joins a crowded field of opinionated people already writing on this issue from one angle or another. He’ll likely be one of the better pro-OOXML writers out there. Nothing wrong with that. As Charles McCabe famously said, “Any clod can have the facts, having opinions is an art.”

But I do suggest that Microsoft’s money would have been better spent, and Rick’s skills better used, if they had engaged Rick earlier to help review and improve the OOXML specification. Trying to fix perceptions of the standard after the fact will be a lot harder, and more expensive, than creating a good standard in the first place.

And I will lament the fact that we continue to lack neutral experts who can digest the massive amounts of technical information out there and present it in a way that the press can reference and the public can understand. I think Rick would have served this role admirably. Instead we risk having one less voice in the middle.

Looking at this potential deal with Rick, and Microsoft’s earlier deal with Novell, I wonder if someone at Microsoft thinks that neutrality is dangerous and that their purposes are better served by eliminating it?

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{ 14 comments… add one }

  • C. T. Rambler 2007/01/23, 14:24

    Dear Rob,

    Any chance of you indicating on the chart where you think you stand?

    Microsoft past history shows that they rather employ someone else to do the dirty laundry for them so they can hide behind and say “I did not do it”. See the recent Massachusetts ODF campaign.

    At least IBM allows their employee to state that “I don’t like OOXML” and say it loud and clear. Hiring somebody to modify wikipedia looks more like covert operation.

    Nobody really think that any company will hire an independent expert to modify wikipedia. I guess the contribution will be less drastic than it would be if Microsoft’s employee do it.

    Anyway, the cover is blown. We have Rick admitting he receive such an offer. Guess Microsoft have to go on to a bit of damage control. To say that Microsoft does not anticipate this possibility is like saying Microsoft is dumb, which it isn’t.

    This will be another test for wikipedia’s editors. Let’s see what they do about it.

  • Anonymous 2007/01/23, 15:15
  • Rob 2007/01/23, 15:22

    I’d place myself toward the upper right, in the “ODF Authors” area. I’m a self-declared ODF proponent, and I am involved with developing that standard at a technical level as a member of OASIS. Like Rick I am also a member of JTC1/SC34.

    There is nothing wrong with having a cause and having opinions and expressing them vigorously. I’m not knocking that. But I am pointing out that it is good to have someone commenting on the ballgame who is not also playing in it.

  • orcmid 2007/01/23, 15:29

    Nice chart, nice analysis (although in the technical press, I’m not so sure about objectivity either way).

    You just couldn’t help but toss in the last sentence, huh? Me either.

  • Rob 2007/01/23, 16:03

    As I said previously, quoting Michael Swain in Dr. Dobbs, Microsoft cannot beat a movement, but they can beat a company. So they try to turn a movement into a company that they can more easily overcome. If they think further reducing this to an attack against me personally suits them, then bring it on. I can always use the traffic.

    Have I written more about OOXML faults recently? Yes, of course. This is a newsworthy topic, now that Ecma has submitted it to ISO. I, and most other people, will write more about things when they are newsworthy. No one talks about Gerald Ford for years, then he dies and everyone is writing about it. That is the way news works. The push of OOXML through ISO is a newsworthy event that is attracting a lot more attention, by me, by other bloggers, by the press, and obviously by Microsoft.

    For example, we just had a meeting yesterday of INCITS V1, the committee that votes the US position in SC34. I was surprised to see three new Microsoft guys in attendance. IBM has only one (me). When things are topical, you will see more activity, from me and others. And the activity you don’t see will be greater as well.

    Remember that ODF had a similar amount of attention back in May of 2005 when it was sent to ISO, coverage both positive and negative. Was this some sort of evil bias? Why should OOXML be excused from scrutiny?

    To quote Harry S. Truman, “I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”

  • PolR 2007/01/23, 20:32

    Keep up the good job. I read most (all?) applicable blogs and it is a delight to see the authors of these standards (specifications?) debate their respective merits. It certainly beat reading a Gartner Group analysis.

    People in the middle of the chart keep mum because they let talk those that know better. I can tell because I am one of them. The outcome is that no amount of FUD or half-truth resist this knd of scrutiny.

  • Marc Ordinas i Llopis 2007/01/24, 05:31

    Neutrality is impossible, I’m afraid.

    Let’s say there really was a neutral, independent observer of this issue. If she were to find that, technically, or ethically, or by any other measurement, either ODF or OOXML was a better standard, would she still be considered a neutral observer?

  • Anonymous 2007/01/24, 18:37

    Well, to be honest, I find it hard to be that neutral when we have one format filled with all the crap you describe, versus another format I know to be open. It’s certainly in Microsoft’s interests to preserve OOXML as a lock-in format, even if that makes it a bad standard. It’s certainly in MY interest as an end user not to get locked in due to my own actions, or due to the necessity of interacting with my fellow computer users (who may all be doing insensible things).

    So I fear that the process of becoming an expert inherently requires them to form their own opinions. The only problem, therefore, is whether they can fairly evaluate those who disagree with them.

  • Anonymous 2007/01/24, 19:05

    It’s great to have people like you out there, poring over 6,000 page documents for errors, omissions, etc.

    But OOXML critics have, seem to focus on minor issues. Nobody, as far as I am aware, has compared the feature set of ODF and OOXML. Which format can DO more? In which areas? I wonder if this silence is because MS Office is the most feature-rich office suite around, and because OOXML supports 100% of its functionality, it is inherently more capable.

    Also, it’s interesting that nobody has mentioned the concept of technological forcing. None of these formats can do things that their flagship producer/consumer applications cannot. Adding new capabilities to the format would in effect force these applications to add the respective capabilities.

  • Rob 2007/01/24, 22:32

    Welcome to my world. As a member of OASIS and the ODF TC, and of JTC1/SC34, a good part of my job is to pour over specifications and find errors, omissions and all those “minor” things as you call them. You are lucky that there are people like that around. Trust me, if the little things aren’t done right, the big things don’t work.

    If you are looking for “Big Picture” statements on file formats, you can check out some of the other blogs on my blog roll. I figure there are a number of people already doing a good job at commentary at that level and there is no need for me to provide redundant content.

    I believe you are mistaken in the impression that these formats are not extensible, or that adding features would require applications to add support for the features as well. There are several mechanisms in XML that allow a well-ordered evolution of a format.

    An example everyone is familiar with. Take a look at HTML. Is HTML unable to do things today beyond what NCSA Mosaic did? Did evolving from through versions require that applications added new features? Certainly some added features, but this was from market forces, not forced upon them from the format.

  • Rick Jelliffe 2007/01/25, 11:09

    This diagram is totally bogus if you don’t accept that being anything other than anti-OOXML equals being anti-ODF.

    The axis should be labelled “Pro-OOXML” and “Anti-OOXML” because I don’t see anyone saying ODF is not the format of choice for some uses, nor that the people who need it should not have a choice, nor that we are not better off with it as an ISO standard. (MS had the opportunity to play dirty tricks and put obstacles in the way of ODF mid 2006, but they didn’t, as you will remember.)

    Now your side’s rhetoric has people and newspapers talking of me in the same sentence as “bribery”. A commenter to this page talks of me “admitting”, for heavens sake. While I appreciate the diagram, as an attempt to say I am not some looney extremist with a Gates-brown nose, and while I understand the rationale for the diagram, I think it would be farer to draw me as a horizontal line spanning ODF and OOXML: I am pro both. But that is not a category you want to allow, because you want to present OOXML as a threat to ODF.

    As you know, I published benchmark figures that were unfavorable to MS Office at the time when they were putting a lot of PR effort into how fast their loading was. And I have consistently said that I thought the interchange story was a hierarchy of increasing fidelity and decreasing reach: HTML, ODF, PDF, OOXML, and that governments concerned with a level playing field would have to mandate ODF. And that even mandating ODF by itself was not good enough: they would need to mandate a profile (subset) along the lines of the Irish Governments’ RIG profiles.

    So thanks for the dot, but I don’t fit on your axes.

  • Rob 2007/01/25, 16:07

    Rick, other than you, the only one I hear saying that OOXML and ODF should both be ISO Standards is Microsoft, and they are only doing that in public. In private, every place where a ODF is promoted, Microsoft is right there trying to derail its adoption. And they aren’t doing it by blogging or editing Wikipedia pages. They are doing it it by toppling government officials and tying up funding for whole government agencies. So we mustn’t confuse their PR with the stark reality.

    Considering the strong arm tactics they are using around the world, I find their moaning and groaning about my blog, GrokLaw and Wikipedia pages pathetic.

  • Brian Jones 2007/01/25, 21:41

    Hi Rob,
    Actually the big push we’ve made is to try to get OpenXML included in the game. There haven’t been any attempts to block ODF, just trying to make sure that OpenXML is given a fair shake too. Obviously if we thought ODF should be blocked we could have attempted to do so in both OASIS and at ISO (as you guys did at Ecma and are now doing at ISO with OpenXML).

    I know it may appear at times like we are against ODF, but it actually isn’t the case. We just didn’t think we could use ODF as our primary format and still meet our customer needs, so instead we wanted to make sure that our default XML formats were also given the same consideration by policy makers. The only times I have made negative comments about ODF is when I’m trying to illustrate why it wouldn’t have worked as the default format for Office.


  • Rob 2007/01/25, 23:03

    Brian, The problem seems to be that Microsoft was trying to give OOXML a “fair shake” a good 18 months before it even existed as a standard. The way to do that was to attempt to delay and prevent ODF adoptions wherever possible, while Microsoft tried to catch up by ramming a 6,000 page specification through Ecma in less than a year. A bold move, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be successful.

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