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The Funnel and the Wedge

The idea was prompted by a comment a reader submitted to a recent post, where he talked about one of the challenges of trying to bridge two different formats (in this case ODF and OOXML) via translation:

Both formats must evolve their new versions simultaneously in locksteps…

This one is the killer. Trying to have two formats permanently synchronized this way is a maintenance nightmare, especially when we discuss standards with multiple implementations maintained by different organizations.

This is an important point, and bears some reflection. In my mind I have images of the funnel and the wedge, physical means of convergence and divergence. Similar forces are at play with standards.

We see the Funnel in the evolution of HTML. Although the standard has existed for over a decade, implementation support for HTML and related standards was uneven until quite recently. Interoperability was poor. From the start vendors added incompatible extensions while not implementing key features. Developers had to write extensive workarounds and alternative representations to work on all browsers. And when they did not that, their web sites might not work with all browsers. But with customer demand and prodding from groups like the Web Standards Group, the interoperable support of the HTML standard across implementations happened. There was convergence. What we have today, although not perfect, is clearly the result of a Funnel, concentrating industry effort around a single standard (or more like a family of standards).

This does not mean that vendors needed to sacrifice innovation, or deny their customers. It just meant that they accomplished their business objectives while also complying with standards. Along with adhering to various financial and securities regulations, labor law, health and safety, and other requirements, both internal and external, voluntary and mandatory, the browser vendors now complied with web standards. It is just another part of doing business.

Similar Funnels have occurred historically with network protocols, wireless telephony (in Europe at least), electrical grids, broadcast formats, etc. I’ve written elsewhere about what types of technologies tend to converge like this and why.

We see the Wedge when two standards compete in the same space and diverge into incompatible technologies. Microsoft is the master of the Wedge, with numerous examples over the years, usually proprietary, but more recently attempting to gain de jure recognition of them. But the mechanism is the same in either case: VML, JScript, MS Kerberos, J++, C++/CLI, XPS, and of course OOXML. Standardization just means that Microsoft has another tool for telling you that the Wedge is good for you. But it is a Wedge nevertheless.

The Wedge brings fragmentation, confusion and lack of interoperability, attacking the core reasons for having a standard in the first place. Once the primary value of an open standard is eliminated, we can all return to the security and comfort of our monopolist overlords. That is their main goal. Make no doubt about it, true interoperability and true choice are very scary propositions for Microsoft. It cuts at their very business model.

So consider the Funnel and the Wedge as applied to document formats. If we all use ODF today, is interoperability perfect? No. Do we know how to move forward to improve interoperability, and work together in multi-vendor consortia to perfect this. Yes, certainly. That is why and how such standards as TCP/IP, HTTP or HTML, work today. Interoperability came via the Funnel, a convergence of effort and attention leading to increased interoperability and the user and industry benefits that flow from that interoperability.

But from the Wedge, what can we expect? If Microsoft is successful, here’s what I see, my dismal predictions:

  1. Within 30 days after OOXML is approved by ISO we see the demise of Microsoft’s half-hearted attempt to create ODF Add-ins for Office. We’ll never see a functional Add-in from them for Excel or PowerPoint, and the Word one will remain unacceptably slow.
  2. Microsoft will continue to evolve OOXML behind closed doors. 99% of the work will be based on product and decisions in conference rooms in Redmond, which will be later rubber stamped by Ecma and ISO.
  3. OOXML and ODF will continue to evolve and diverge, in incompatible ways.
  4. Seeing their success ramming through 6,000 page Fast Track submissions in ISO, Microsoft will follow up with similar fast track submissions for XPS, XAML, Silverlight, Windows Media Photo, whatever they have. Since they have taken the trouble to set up the machinery to dominate JTC1, they will continue to force feed them with additional material.
  5. Every jurisdiction where ODF is currently allowed and mandated will also allow or mandate the use of OOXML. This in practice will be turned around to mandate the use of Windows and Office.
  6. Finally, once all opposition is rendered harmless, they can shut down OpenOffice.org and KOffice by patent lawsuits, but keep Novell’s version around in order to keep anti-trust regulators away. After all, 97% market share is not the same as 100%.

Maybe I’m a bit pessimistic, but I see little reason for optimism.

So do we have an alternative to the Wedge? What would encourage the Funnel? The following would need to happen:

  1. ISO must reject OOXML.
  2. Customers, from private and public sectors, must make their voices heard, that they want true interoperability and choice and that this means a single document format.
  3. Microsoft must support the existing ODF completely and fully in Office. It won’t happen overnight. But it won’t happen at all unless they start.
  4. OASIS must work with Microsoft (and Microsoft with OASIS, of course) so that that it is clearly explained how MS Office can fully represent their documents in ODF. This need not be a monolithic monster like OOXML, but should be a layered standard, with a basic core feature set and defined extensions and profiles that encompass wider and wider ranges of functionality. If Microsoft absolutely needs the “heebieJeebies” Art Border in Word in order to maintain 100% fidelity with legacy documents, then the ODF TC can show Microsoft how to encode this in ODF. The Funnel starts when Microsoft abandons their divergent effort in Ecma and joins the common effort around ODF, a single document format for personal productivity applications.
  5. The application vendors, Microsoft included, must work together on defining the organizational, standards and technical means necessary to measure, test and certify ODF compliance, so customers and procurement agencies are able to have assurances that they are getting the level of interoperability that they desire.

I think this is a natural progression. Accomplishing the first step stops the Wedge from progressing further, halting but not reversing the divergence. The other steps reverse the damage and turn us down a path of true interoperability, leading to true choice and innovation.

Finally note that the Wedge is typically driven by a single company. It is not a pull by public demand or from customers, though it may wear many disguises. It is a deliberate attempt by one party to cause division and divergence. But a Funnel, this won’t happen at all unless there is strong demand, from customers, from government agencies, from national standards committees, etc. If this is to happen, your voice must be heard. All of us must work to bring all of us together in this effort. But it takes just one company, with a sufficiently large Wedge to pull us apart.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Queen Elizabeth 2007/05/18, 10:44

    Rob, given Microsoft’s recent “yes” vote on ODF, it is unlikely that “once all opposition is rendered harmless, they can shut down OpenOffice.org and KOffice by patent law suits.”

    Their recommendation of ODF as a standard will greatly weaken any case of patent infringement and injury they can make against OpenOffice and the like. Many of the 45 patents they assert probably are IN the format!

  • Anonymous 2007/05/18, 12:57

    [quote] OASIS must work with Microsoft to define and add features to ODF such that MS Office can fully represent their documents in ODF. [/quote]

    Isn’t it dangerous to say things like that, given that Microsoft is using the same argument against ODF? Especially without specific examples?

    The accessibility is being addressed, but that does not mean that ODF can not store all the information available in MS Office documents. It just means that ODF can currently not present that information to people with disabilities.

    In a similar way, OOXML’s Custom Schema (if I remember that correctly) has nothing to do with (re)presenting information. It is just a way to gracefully extend OOXML — beyond its ECMA standard — to add semantic data (if I understand it correctly, that is its main purpose).

    Nitpicking aside, I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks!

  • Alex 2007/05/18, 13:07

    Rob, you write that have MS have “set up the machinery to dominate JTC1”. How so?

  • Rob 2007/05/18, 16:38

    @Queen,

    ANSI’s patent policy explicitly allows standards which uses patented materials, see “ANSI Essential Requirements”, Section 3.1. So Microsoft’s approval of ODF does not automatically equate to any disavowal of patents.

    @Anonymous,

    I hope I’m not saying anything dangerous. But if Office supports triple underlined text and ODF only supports double underlined text, then by all means let’s add it to ODF. But this doesn’t mean we bloat ODF beyond all recognition. We require good engineering as well. You need to build complexity on top of simplicity. XML is simple. OOXML is very complex. ODF is someplace in between, but built upon simpler standards like MathML. The key is to build OOXML on top of the ISO ODF Standard such that the core value of ODF remains, while the functional reach of OOXML is fully specified for those who needed it.

    And BTW, ODF 1.1 has the accessibility work completed in it and that was voted an OASIS Standard earlier this this year. And there is nothing that OOXML supports via custom schemas that ODF 1.0 does not already support.

    In any case I think you are pretending to be dumber than you are. And there is nothing wrong with your memory. If you are going to be anonymous, at least say what you really think.

    @Alex,

    You ask “How?”. If I knew I wouldn’t be here blogging, I’d be doing something about it. Let’s just say that this is my observation which I discussed a couple posts ago. Look for “I Sometimes Need to Remind Myself”

  • Anonymous 2007/05/19, 05:04

    “Rob, you write that have MS have “set up the machinery to dominate JTC1″. How so?”

    New members are invariably states that fully support ANY microsoft position.

    Every national body now has 3 or more voting members that are either MS employees or employees of MS gold partners (ie, dependends). These people lose their job if they vote against MS.

    Most governments have seen this and now not only require ISO standardization, but also community (stakeholder) and open stewardship, free IP licensing, and multiple, independend implementations.

    Or in other words, most states expect ISO standardization of OOXML, and have allready prevented OOXML procurements. The exception is the federal level in the USA and Washington state ;-). However, I expect that most US states will fall for MS funding tactics, like MA did.

    Winter

  • putt1ck 2007/05/22, 08:34

    So, if you and Winter are right (even allowing for some understandable paranoia), hasn’t ISO/IEC become invalid, insofar as standards that pass through JTC1 are concerned?

    That’s some power MS are wielding, destroying the value of an international standards body that’s been around for fifty years…

  • Rob 2007/05/22, 09:54

    We should have some sympathy for JTC1. The problem is that their Directives allow a liaison organization, like Ecma, to submit a standard, like OOXML, for “Fast Track” processing which forces JTC1 to give it special expedited treatment, regardless of its length. So the larger the standard, the more cursory the review.

    JTC1 is choking on a fish bone. The sooner it recognized that it has a problem, the sooner it can do something about it.

  • Anonymous 2007/05/22, 21:02

    If you want one format … perhaps the sensible thing is to adopt OpenXML? Why drive a wedge by insisting on ODF. All the arguments you’ve used cut both ways. Conspiracy theories can be applied just as easily (perhaps more so) to those objecting to OpenXML.

  • Rob 2007/05/23, 02:54

    ODF is causing the wedge? You are welcome to make that argument if you can. But you would need also to explain how XForms, SVG, MathML, etc., standard for over 10 years some of them, are also driving a wedge by not using OOXML’s VML, OOMML, etc.

    Remember, Microsoft is driving standards wedges across their portfolio. This is not just about ODF. Their business model falls apart if users actually have interoperability and the freedom of choice that interoperability brings.

  • Anonymous 2007/05/27, 01:49

    The wedge starts in schools, where Microsoft replace the Office 2003 with Office 2007 at no extra charge (because the school contract for software means it is already paid for).

    There isn’t really a mechanism to displace OOXML with ODF

  • The Wraith 2007/05/29, 00:41

    [blockquote]ODF is causing the wedge? You are welcome to make that argument if you can.[/blcokquote]

    Why didn’t anyone think of merging with OOXML before ISO standardising ?
    Why the big rush by OASIS to get the ISO standardisation for a format that is not finished even now and will only be at version 1.2
    It seems that you support the “rushing out semi finished standard just to to be first theorie” but it is unlikely ISO has the same view.

    It seems users could have benifitted more from an effort in merging the formats then in the ISO standardization effort. As for the next few years the binary formats will still dominate there was litte need for an ISO standard to be rushed.

    It would have been much better if ISO had developed their own format in a TC using and then both OASIS and Microsoft could have participated and could have been invited to submitttheir own formats , and their own wishes. If for instance the EU would have declared that the resulting format was to be standard for the EU then Micrsoft would have participated .

    Now by rushig the ODF format, OASIS has created the two format standoff that you are supporting yourself as well.

    As OASIS started with the fast ISO procedure in stead of just waiting for a full standardisation proces the whole stage was set for only one inevitable way to go forward.

    Merging of formats has been set back 10 years just by entering ODF as an ISO standard in stead of letting ISO develop their own standard with wide support before it started which could have used ODF as input.

  • Rob 2007/05/29, 12:01

    “Why didn’t anyone think of merging with OOXML before ISO standardising ?”

    Uh…how about because OOXML did not yet exist then?

    But certainly I’d agree that if ISO had a working group creating a document standard in 2002 when ODF was started, then it would have been natural to join that effort rather starting a new standard.

    But that wasn’t the situation in 2002. Back then all we had was the binary file formats from Microsoft, formats which had no freely available specification. You could only receive information on these binary formats if you signed an agreement with Microsoft that prohibited use in applications that competed against Microsoft.

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