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Sometimes I need to remind myself

Tim Anderson has an interesting article up on his ITWriting blog, “Microsoft’s Jean Paoli on the XML document debate”. Of course, I treat anything Jean Paoli says on XML with such attention as I usually reserve for listening to the isorhythmic motets of Philippe de Vitry. Like de Vitry, Paoli can be understood on several different levels: What is he saying? And what is he really saying. As a student of Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, I hope that I am up to the task.

There is, of course, the familiar canard, that IBM is the source of all of their problems:

It is clear though that Paoli is upset by what he sees as an international campaign against OOXML orchestrated by IBM, the sole naysayer in the ECMA voting. “There are IBM employees going to ISO, and saying a lot of technically incorrect things. When ODF went to ISO Microsoft did not interfere. IBM is betting on ODF, to have governments preferentially buying IBM software. It is OK to compete, but using this kind of argument around is it an open format or not … it’s widely known now, Office Open XML is an open format, even the EU says it is.”

A Google search on the words ecma ibm sole vote returns an embarrassingly large number of hits. Microsoft has certainly been having fun with this line. Let’s take a little look at this question and see if we can better define this conspiracy that Paoli is alluding to.

I’m now going to rant a little. You may want to stand back.

Yes, IBM was the only voting member in Ecma who cast a voted against OOXML. But guess what, we’re probably the only company who actually had someone perform the due diligence of reading the specification. The others voted on OOXML without reading the spec. So please give their “Yes” votes all the weight they deserve, but not more.

It seems to me that Ecma has become a standards factory, a place where you go for clean, efficient, no-guilt, fast-track service. Don’t want to publish your public comments? Fuggetaboutit. Don’t want to publish your meeting minutes? Fuggetaboutit. Worried about rushing through a 6,000 page specification in less than a year, with 20x less scrutiny than average? Fuggetaboutit. Want to have a unanimous vote, along with with a souvenir photograph of your face when the vote occurs? Yes sir, we guarantee it.

However, for the privilege of this elite service, you must cough up the dough. You will not find Ecma’s rate card on their website, but I’m told that voting membership will set you back $57,000. This is not exactly the club to join if you are a small (or medium) business, non-profit, public sector agency, or anything but one of the big boys. A list of the privileged twenty voting members of Ecma can be found here.

As you can imagine, one does not become a voting member of Ecma without a good reason. This is a business expense, not a charitable contribution. For $57K, one expects $57K of service. To justify that membership fee, you expect your technology to be blessed with an Ecma standards imprimatur without hassles. So the “unwritten rule” is that everyone votes in favor of everyone else’s proposal. It is considered rude to vote against something that another elite member has paid so much for. So, IBM gets get a lot of grief for casting a single “No” vote at a single Ecma General Assembly. We broke the club rules. I’m proud to work for such a company.

My question is this: How many “No” votes have been cast in Ecma in the past 5 years? When before did another Ecma member ever vote “No” on a standard? If no one can remember even a single previous “No” vote, or (sacre bleu!) a defeated standard, then that speaks volumes. In a healthy standards body, a single “No” vote should not be a newsworthy event, and should certainly not be something that Microsoft is still complaining about 6 months later.

To put this in perspective, the base category of OASIS voting memberships (Contributor) starts at $1,100. OASIS has something like 330 organizational members eligible to vote, including all categories of companies, government agencies, non-profits, etc.

I should also note, just coming from the annual OASIS Symposium held last week, that the OASIS Board of Directors is looking at changing the OASIS voting rules to make it more difficult for OASIS standards to be approved. Yup, we’re raising the bar.

When I see this I need to try extra hard to remind myself that IBM is just interfering with Microsoft’s good-faith attempt to humbly submit for our consideration their well-written, detailed, high-quality, interoperable open standard.

ISO/IEC JTC1/SC34 recently had its annual plenary. This is the same group of ISO National Body (NB) members who voted in favor of ODF last year, and over the next few months many of them will be recommending positions on Microsoft’s OOXML to their national standards bodies. I was on the delegates list for attending this meeting, as a representative of the US NB, but had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency. When I saw the attendance list, I was surprised to see that Microsoft had sent five people, this to a meeting of only 37 people. They practically darkened the skies with their employees. And what about the conspiratorial army that is hounding them at every corner? Zero people from IBM. Zero as well for Google, Sun, RedHat, Adobe, Oracle and Novell.

When I read this I need to remind myself that I’m part of a vast global conspiracy to deny Microsoft a fair hearing within ISO. The fact that no one in this vast global conspiracy managed to show up at the meeting was simply a ploy to make Microsoft feel overconfident.

In the US NB, we have a committee called INCITS V1. It is the mirror committee to JTC1/SC34. I serve on it, the only member from IBM. Imagine my surprise, when at our last call, Microsoft shows up with 3 employees and a business partner as new members. Four people against little ol’ me? Come on guys, that is just sad.

At times like this I need to remind myself that Microsoft is the underdog and IBM and its allies are ganging up them. But our guys are invisible at meetings and although they cannot vote, they do have ninja powers and, in matters of external affairs, the delegated plenipotentiary prerogatives of Klingon Ambassadors. “choSuvchugh ‘oy’lIj Daghur neH”.

Microsoft bloggers, fed and spreading like mushrooms, recently popped up and simultaneously announced a new pro-OOXML petition, self-published, self-hosted and self-reported by Microsoft. You couldn’t find anyone to even pretend to support you? You had to host your own petition? This is like throwing a birthday party and having only your mother show up. Very sad. Where are your friends, Microsoft? How come we hear no one else speaking approvingly about OOXML? Where are the other companies lining up? Where are the endorsements? The testimonials? All we hear is that Microsoft thinks OOXML is great. But that is just Mom cheering on your performance. Don’t you have any real support?

Btw, this is what a real petition looks like. It is hosted by a reputable party (the Prime Minister) and gives a open, public listing and tally of those who signed the petition.

At times like this I need to remind myself that the ODF supports are the outsiders in this debate, using unconventional and covert tactics to fight a well-respected and well-loved mainstream technology generously provided by Microsoft.

I see that Microsoft likes to throw around names like the British Library and Library of Congress, as if the mere mention of their holy names brings sacramental blessings. But please show me a public statement where either of these bodies has endorsed, adopted, recommended adoption or recommended approval of OOXML. The mere mention in passing of well-known and popular institutions lends no credibility to your argument, and credible arguments are important, as is well-known to anyone familiar with Walt Disney World, the Louvre, NASA , the Boston Red Sox, or the Department of Really Important Stuff .

A Malaysian standards committee was moving forward to approve ODF as a national standard in Malaysia. This is called “transposing” an International Standard, and is commonly done when a relevant International Standard is approved. Microsoft has made every attempt possible to prevent this committee from making progress with their review of ODF, for almost a year now. This progress recently came to a halt, the committee’s decisions nullified and the committee suspended.

When standards committees are disbanded when they get too close to approving ODF, then I must pinch myself and remind myself once again that IBM is the one orchestrating international campaigns against Microsoft, and not the other way around.

I’ve heard similar complaints from other NB’s. Why bother reviewing OOXML? Why waste the effort reading it and suggesting improvements? Microsoft has ignored every suggestion given it so far by NB’s. And if you vote no, Microsoft will just escalate and try to get some mid-level government bureaucrat to set aside the recommendation of your country’s technical experts. What waste the next 4 months reviewing a 6,000 page specification? It happened in Malaysia. It happened in the US. The INCITS Executive Board was about to send a contradiction submission against OOXML, saying that it possibly contradicted ODF. But before the committee could reconvene the next morning, enough members had received urgent phone calls to cause them to change their vote and abstain. We saw this in the Netherlands as well, where it was even reported in the papers that they would vote against OOXML. But that vote was changed at the last minute with the cryptic message to the JTC1 Secretariat: “The Netherlands Standardization institute votes ‘abstain’. Please change our vote accordingly and please confirm receipt of this vote to me…” What happened there is still unclear. In India it was even worse, when the committee that was supposed to get the ballot did not receive it. Evidently it was misplaced. The intervention of the leader of a major national political party was required to straighten it out. I also received a note saying that the committee was being told that the deadline for responding to the ballot was two weeks later than it really was, a delay that would have invalidated their vote if they had fallen into that trap.

When I see stuff like this happening, I need to remind myself, really, really hard, that IBM is the bad guy in this debate and that we’re the one interfering with an orderly ISO process.

When an amendment to a Florida State Senate bill was offered that called for a “business case analysis” for the use of open standard document formats (no particular format was called out) Microsoft’s lobbyists, the three Men in Black, Will McKinley of Dutko Poole McKinley, Jim Daughton, Jr. and Geoffrey Becker both of Metz, Hauser, Husband & Daughton, swarmed down and zapped it. As one legislative aide put it, “By the time those lobbyists were done talking, it sounded like ODF (Open Document Format, the free and open format used by OpenOffice.org and other free software) was proprietary and the Microsoft format was the open and free one”. Perhaps a document, left by the lobbyists, filled with lies about ODF, had something to do with it? We should be fortunate that Microsoft sent only three lobbyists to handle this, rather than all nine lobbyists who are registered in Florida alone to support Microsoft’s legislative activities.

When expressing our technical opinion defines interference, and the outrages that Microsoft is getting away with become the norms of behavior, then we’re all doomed to a future of technical subservience. We all need to remind ourselves of that.

Microsoft likes to complain, and they are evidently becoming quite adept at it. If decibels and dollars could win arguments then they would surely be the winners. But I think their protestations are mis-directed. Microsoft is like an out-of-condition middle-aged man (somewhat like myself) out for a rare jog. They can curse to the high heavens the pain they feel, but don’t blame it on others. It is called competition. Deal with it. If it hurts so much it is because you are so out of practice. You should try having competition more often. It is good for you.

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Ben Langhinrichs 2007/04/23, 22:33

    An excellent post. Thanks!

  • Anonymous 2007/04/24, 08:05

    Excellent rant! However, there is little need to worry. This is a grounds-up movement and MickeySoft can do all it wants to, it will fail all the same.

    The ball is rolling and gathering momentum all the time. Major organisations are switching to ODF for internal documents and PDF for document archival and external consumption as policy. This trend is not reversible because once anybody switches, it is instantly clear which format is Open and which is Closed.

  • Wesley Parish 2007/04/24, 08:54

    Yes, Microsoft’s done little except tickle my funny-bone with their incessant complaints about IBM.

    I once knew a man who could easily have been in a similar situation – he was a retired Collingwood player – AFL, for the incognoscenti – who was playing Aussie Rules on the amateur level in New Zealand. He said on one occasion that every winter he put on weight – then for the NZ Aussie Rules season in early spring, he burnt it off, quite rapidly.

    It makes a difference when you’ve got some motivation – for one thing, you stop complaining and play as hard as you can.

    I think Microsoft has lost the will to compete in a field they regard as their own by right – if MS Office 2k7 was supposed to drive the adoption of MS Windows Vista, it hasn’t succeeded so far, and if MS Office 2k7 was supposed to drive the adoption of ECMA 376, it likewise hasn’t succeeded.

  • Anonymous 2007/04/24, 09:56

    Careful. I wouldn’t under-estimate microsoft. You may want to review the history of that company.

  • Anonymous 2007/04/24, 10:32

    The closing comments remind me of what David Skoll, of Roaring Penguin fame, wrote about another PR gaffe on the part of Micrcosoft. It paid the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution for a white paper on the GPL. In that paper ATdI stacked misconception upon misconception, in order to blacken the GPL.

    Dave’s recurring response? “Don’t like the GPL? Tough. Adapt or die.”

    Link here.

  • Dave 2007/04/24, 11:50

    My mother used to say that when people say mean things about other people, it really reflects on what they dislike about themselves. I think that saying applies quite well to this situation.

    What we are seeing is Microsoft clawing its way kicking and screaming against the tide of open formats. The thing is that people are wising up and want control of their data. And once there is enough groundswell around open formats, their dirty tricks will be ineffective. They know this, which is why you see them opening up so many fronts.

    I personally get a little giggly at their attempts because it just highlights their desperation.

  • Bill Price 2007/04/24, 13:18

    For Brutus is an honorable man.
    Will Shakespeare would be proud of the style you used here.

  • amd-linux 2007/04/24, 14:15

    It is amazing how this company does virtually everything to stay on the very top of the world’s most hated companies.

    As a German, may I point out that Microsoft in my country is more and more becoming a synonym for the “bad” America – in a bitter row with your current president, the Guantanamo camp and the war in Iraq.

    Microsoft is damaging the reputation of your great nation.

  • Anonymous 2007/04/24, 16:01

    Why do you lie so badly? (I know you won’t publish this comment, but at least your consience will know you lied. Of course, being linked to IBM ensures you won’t have one.)

    http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16059

    “Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture for the British Library, commented: “We think it’s fantastic that Microsoft is opening up the MS Office formats to standardization.””

    “The British Library’s Farquahr said: “I think that it is significant that Microsoft is taking this step. Microsoft is listening to customers who want to ensure that they have full access to the content that they have created. The route that they are following—standards-based followed by standardization—is a very positive one, and I anticipate that the resulting standardized formats will have excellent preservation properties. There are many alternate routes that they could have taken!””

  • Rob 2007/04/24, 16:50

    Anonymous,

    That quote from the British Library was from November 2005, before the TC even was formally created by Ecma and before it even met for the first time. He is not commenting on the OOXML specification. How could he be, when it wasn’t even started yet?

    Of course, cynics mights also note that this quote came just two weeks after Microsoft announced that they were investing $2.5 million in a digitization project at the British Library.

    As he says, “I anticipate that the resulting standardized formats will have excellent preservation properties.” Note the word “anticipate”. That is the nice thing about the British — they have a different word for everything, and each ones means something.

    In any case I wonder whether he thinks that what he anticipated actually was accomplished and whether he is pleased with the results? Would he say that the OOXML specification, filled with bitmasks, dependencies on Windows, dependencies on undocumented behaviors from previous versions of Office, with incorrect calculations of leap years, etc., whether this indeed has what he would call, in retrospect, “excellent preservation properties”?

    Oh, and next time you want to call someone “stupid”, maybe you want to give your name and stand by your words. Or are you are you a coward as well as stupid?

    -Rob

  • Doug Mahugh 2007/04/24, 17:00

    Guantanamo? Iraq? Amd-linux, say what you will about Open XML but them’s fightin’ words!

    Here’s something you may not know: Microsoft, especially in Redmond, is quite liberal. I think I probably speak for the majority of Redmondites in saying I’d rather have Rob Weir as President than George Bush. (No sarcasm at all, and that’s more about George than you, Rob. :-))

    Cheers,
    Doug

  • Anonymous 2007/04/24, 17:35

    I’m wondering why you’re not worried more by this. MS has done so much harm to the technology world already (…remember the superior OS/2?). Do IBM and other ODF-supporters have anything to counteract the MS employee-votes ? Remember that Novell has “turned” and wants OOXML succeed, themselves, also putting as much of it as they can (since some of it relies on proprietary WINDOWS software, like VML and IE) in their fork of OpenOffice.org.

    http://lnxwalt.wordpress.com/2007/03/23/packing-the-court-at-the-iso/
    “To the beautiful city of Oslo to attend the first SC 34 meeting of the year, and in particular to progress DSDL. SC34 suddenly has a lot of new P member countries (’participating member’ countries) sending representatives, and I am interested to note the majority of their representatives are, as individuals, also Microsoft employees.

    Boycott Novell also has descriptions of this from other bloggers here; read the comments section halfway down for a collection, up to that date of April 6/07:
    http://boycottnovell.com/2007/04/06/ooxml-five-month-iso-ballot-process-begins/

    It worries me that this is going on to this day as you’ve noted, yet you’ve employees from ODF-supporting companies aren’t doing the same….why is that???

  • Anonymous 2007/04/24, 17:37

    Just curious what this new Microsoft standard will be labeled if it ever succeeds. They will surely want to say that is open, but the only problem is that even if it is rubber stamped, there will still be a documented history of how it come to be. Maybe Devoid or Defunct might be the words for something that never should have been accepted as a standard in the first place.

    While it is hard to think that Microsoft will change their tactics, it becomes obvious that they seem to far less effective when they don’t have any way of controlling the flow of information and have to buy their friends.

    Welcome to the Information Age.

  • Ed Daniel 2007/04/24, 18:42

    Curious call by Anonymous re: British Library and glad that Rob posted a reply.

    It might be worth noting that British Librarians have their own pertinent petition regarding preserving accessibility and freedom here:
    http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/library/

  • orcmid 2007/04/25, 00:46

    It took me a while to understand what the petition hosting was about. It is a free-for-all site for petitioning on whatever you want:

    “Welcome to the petition creation page.

    “There are over 7,000 petitions on this site. Before creating a new petition, please use this box to check whether a petition already exists which makes your point. If so, please add your name to that petition. We will not create duplicate petitions making identical points.

    “Once you’ve done your search, you can continue to create a new petition, or to sign an existing one.”

    So it is nice that it is hosted by 10 Downing Street, but I’m not sure what the point is other than that.

    It seems to be transparent in terms of signatories, although I suppose the thing can be gamed without too much trouble, which is not too different than any other on-line petition scheme.

    I personally think petitions for this sort of thing are lame, including the ones set up by Microsoft.

  • orcmid 2007/04/25, 00:53

    “British Librarians have their own pertinent petition”

    I don’t get it. This has nothing to do with preservation or formats or standardization, it is about the library budget and whether they may have to limit hours or charge some sort of entrance fee. These are issues that almost any public library system has to deal with when their budget is cut or does not grow to match increased costs.

    I suppose it would be interesting to see how the Open Document Format petition ranks against others of the 7,000, but I don’t get the pertinence of this one to Rob’s theme.

  • orcmid 2007/04/25, 01:04

    @rob: I agree anonymous was insulting, but I think the Richard Wiggins article is very clear: It is about the intention to submit Office Open XML to ECMA, and the quotes are from co-sponsors in that submission, including Apple.

    And I think this statement is also clear, pointing out that the preservation project that Microsoft contributed to is not about how the museum will delivery content: “Some people think we are adopting Microsoft formats as our standard for digital preservation. This is not right; we are striving to make sure that content we receive in MS formats will be preserved.” He continued: “What format will we deliver? We deliver a lot of articles and in many formats. We deliver content in PDF, Office Open, ODF, TIFF —whatever format the customer wants.”

  • Anonymous 2007/04/25, 01:23

    This story is a classic in PR.

    Now for the serious stuff. Every organization that contemplates prescribing an Office Standard is preparing for the case MS forces MSOOXML through ISO.

    So they ALL add the condition that any standard should be “Controlled by an open industry organization with a well-defined inclusive process for evolution of the standard.”. This will clearly disqualify MSOOXML because MS would have to allow IBM and Sun to participate in the governement of the standard.

    So I think administrations everywhere take no chances at MS being able to strongarm ISO into accepting a rubber stamped MSOOXML standard, and clearly state they DON’T want it.

    Btw, I still feel odd about a voting procedure where many or most participants will be fired if they vote against MSOOXML.

    (and in response to MS fans, we know how Steve and Bill treat opposition; Peter Quinn was obviously forced to resign for voting against MS. Now PROVE that IBM has fired a representative who voted against IBMs strategic plans)

    Winter

  • putt1ck 2007/04/25, 02:47

    Nice…

    And that anti-ODF lobby paper is enlightening too. Has anyone written a rebuttal? If not they should (and preferably a spoof “National Lampoons Whitepaper on how bad ODF is”).

    Chris

  • Zaine Ridling 2007/04/25, 05:19

    Rob, once again, I walk away informed rather than befuddled. On behalf of the many who did not leave a comment, we’re grateful for your passion and willingness to correct the record.

    In a direct sense I agree with amd-linux — Microsoft seems to have gone to the Karl Rove school of dirty tricks.

    One word sums up Microsoft’s behavior in all this: desperation. As you noted, “In a healthy standards body, a single “No” vote should not be a newsworthy event, and should certainly not be something that Microsoft is still complaining about 6 months later.

    The attacks by Microsoft supporters on those who disagree with their unprecedented cakewalk toward ISO certification are direct signs of desperation. They are lashing out because they know the days are numbered for their failed file format and that the world — that is, governments, industry, and everywhere but the US and parts of Western Europe — will not chain its entire data structure to a corporation. IBM sided with open source long ago, and it’s won them new clients around the globe. Sun has be enlivened by open source and has expanded its mission thanks to the possiblities that ODF provides. Users are excited this year — not by anything Microsoft has released — but by Ubuntu 7.04.

    The encroachment of open source will continue to Microsoft’s frustration, no matter ISO’s outcome.

  • Nile 2007/04/27, 22:24

    Hello, I’m Nile, president of Florida Free Culture. We’re a student organization at the University of Florida and we’re hosting the antiODF.pdf document that you link to.

    If you want to read more about how we found it, check out these two posts:
    http://uf.freeculture.org/2007/04/18/microsoft-lobbying-on-open-standards-bill/
    http://uf.freeculture.org/2007/04/01/legislature-2007-state-of-florida-it/

    Thanks for blogging about the issue.

  • Wesley Parish 2007/05/04, 08:10

    Doug Mahugh, if you’re still reading, could I ask why Microsoft has done these two things – fixate on IBM of all companies, as its bete noir; and ignore the fact that a good number of the contradictions alleged in ECMA 376 happen to be substantive, not procedural? (A substantive objection refers to the subject matter; a procedural objection refers to the manner of its presentation.)

    I mean, this is getting bizarre.

    And while you’re at it, could you find the time to let us know why there is so much cruft in the actual ECMA 376 specification instead of their substance being abstracted and left in the specification and their surface matter put elsewhere in an appendix?

    I don’t get it; I just don’t get it.

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