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Punct Contrapunct

The recent Burton Group report, What’s Up, .DOC? by Guy Creese and Peter O’Kelly was made available free to the public for a stated purpose:

We’ve made the overview available for free (I must admit I’m not sure for how long), as we believe this topic warrants expanded industry debate before a February, 2008 ISO ballot on OOXML, and we want to help catalyze and advance the debate.

The degree of expanded debate achieved may be estimated by noting that Microsoft is sending this report to every JTC1 national body involved in the OOXML ballot, from Pakistan to Ecuador, and has invited Peter O’Kelly to speak on this paper both at the recent OOXML press event in Washington as well as this week’s Office Developers Conference.

Much could be said of this report, but I’ll limit myself to commenting on a single passage:

[S]everal vendors interviewed for this overview indicated that it’s essentially impossible to get ODF proposals approved if they’re not also supported in OpenOffice.org, and further noted that Sun closely controls OpenOffice.org (much as it also holds control over Java).

It should be noted that, before making this statement, the authors neither contacted OASIS nor the OASIS ODF TC in order to check their facts.

The ODF Alliance published a rebuttal of this report, and in particular took umbrage at that passage, saying:

This is demonstrably false, and the use of unnamed “vendors” as sources does not eliminate the need for doing basic fact checking on such claims. Rumors and innuendo do not objective analysis make.

First, on the control aspect, note that ODF 1.0, the standard, is owned and controlled by OASIS, a standards consortium of over 600 member organizations. Sun is just one company among many members. Indeed, for most of the development of ODF, Microsoft was on the Board of Directors of OASIS.

Second, OASIS is a corporation. It is legally bound to its Bylaws. There is no arbitrary control by member corporations.

The ODF TC is co-chaired by an IBM employee and a Sun employee, and is regulated by the OASIS TC Process document, which is publicly readable by all and has clear rules of procedure and appeal.

The ODF TC has three subcommittees. The Accessibility SC is co-chaired by IBM and Sun, while the Formula Subcommittee and the Metadata Subcommittee are each chaired by individual members of OASIS who are not affiliated with any large corporations.

Voting rights in the ODF TC, for accepting or rejecting features, is currently as follows:

  • Sun – 3 voting members
  • IBM – 4 voting members
  • Individuals – 3 voting members

This can easily be verified at the OASIS ODF TC website.

Is sharing the chair position on the TC and on 1 of 3 subcommittees considered “closely controlling”? Is having 30% of the votes considered “closely controlling”?

As for proposals being accepted into ODF, we note that all three major features for ODF 1.2, RDF metadata, OpenFormula, and enhanced accessibility, are new proposals which have not been yet implemented in OpenOffice. Moreover, the ODF TC is currently processing a set of features requested by the KOffice open source project. So the assertion that it is “essentially impossible” to get new features into ODF if they are not already supported by OpenOffice is not true. This error is unfortunate and needs correcting through rigorous fact checking, as do the others, in our opinion.

Oddly enough, this particular error occurs in several places. A search of the report for the word “control” shows it used six times, once in reference to “Chinese communists” and five times in reference to Sun Microsystems. Note, however, that no mention is ever made of the strong direct control Microsoft asserts over OOXML, its having sole chairmanship of the Ecma TC45, and its having secured a committee charter that prevents any changes to OOXML that are not compatible with Microsoft Office.

Again, we’re puzzled by the inaccuracy on one hand and the lack of balance on the other.

Now, back to the Burton Group, where Guy Creese responds on the Burton Group blog:

We were not expecting to be told that Sun had significant sway over the standard, but several people told us that (spread across more than one ODF-oriented vendor), which is why we noted it in the report. As the ODF Alliance notes, IBM and Sun—two of Microsoft’s most powerful productivity application archrivals today (as well as partners to Microsoft in myriad other domains, e.g., Web services-related standards initiatives)—collectively control 70% of the votes in the ODF TC which determines if proposals will be accepted or rejected. This suggests there is ample opportunity for conflicts of interest.

Guy, excuse me, did you say “conflicts of interest”? Please explain. Or maybe when Peter O’Kelly comes back from speaking at Microsoft’s Office Developers Conference he can explain it for us?

In any case, the factual errors in your report with respect to the control of ODF have been clearly demonstrated, but instead of simply admitting and correcting the error, you hide beyond anonymous sources and further impugn OASIS by charging some sort of “conflict of interest”.

To follow your logic further demonstrates the absurdity of it. If you believe that the fact that IBM and Sun “collectively control 70% of the votes in the ODF TC” lends weight to your argument, then what is shown by the equally true mathematical fact that IBM plus independent members also control 70% of the votes? Why is this equally true fact not mentioned? This is the nature of plurality, that there are many different combinations of votes that could make a majority position. Further, note that these groups in practice do not always vote as a bloc. We’ve had votes where the independent members split their vote, and we even had a vote where the IBM members did not all vote alike. So much for your simplistic control theory.

I will not question whether your anonymous sources indeed misled you. For sake of argument, I will accept unquestioningly that you indeed had sources and that they said exactly what you claim they said. However, having sources does not excuse you, as an analyst, from doing basic fact checking. The rules of OASIS and the voting composition of the ODF TC are facts, not opinions, and the correct information was sitting there, on public web sites, for you to check. It is not your fault that you were misled by sources, but it is your fault that you did not verify their claims. To publish controversial statements based on anonymous sources without fact checking, this is not something that represents the Burton Group’s finest work.

The Burton Group has denigrated the work and the members of the OASIS Open Document Format Technical Committee (of which I am Co-Chair) with published statements that have been shown to be false. The Burton Group owes us an apology and an immediate retraction.

Waiting until after February, after the DIS 29500 process concludes, to make corrections is unacceptable. Since your stated purpose in making this report public was to “advance the debate” in the current OOXML ISO process, withholding factual corrections until after that process concludes would imply that you and the Burton Group see no problems with knowingly persisting in influencing an ISO ballot with false information published under the Burton Group name. I don’t believe that is the image that the Burton Group would want to project. So I urge that a correction is in order now.

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • The Wraith 2008/02/12, 11:14

    Who writes these anonymous rebuttals for the ODF alliance.
    Are you writing those yourself or is it one of your colleagues or maybe a TC colleague from Sun.

    Also how much funding/sponsorship is IBM supplying to organizations like the ODF alliance, the OpenDocument fellowship, the FFII and the Open Forum Europe.

    You might suggest some unproven influence from MS on the Burton Group rapport but then you should not hide any efforts made by IBM in influencing opinion around Office Open XML

  • Wang-Lo 2008/02/12, 13:51

    I have to agree with Mr. Creese about opportunities for a conflict of interest: The OASIS charter for “the development, convergence and adoption of open standards for the global information society” definitely conflicts with Microsoft’s demonstrated interest in owning, controlling, or polluting every standard brought to their attention.

    -Wang-Lo.

  • Alphadog 2008/02/13, 08:38

    Has the ODF Alliance sent the rebuttal to the exact same people and organizations targeted (and I use that word purposely) by the Burton “report” (and I use quotes purposely)?

    If not, send it already.

  • Rob 2008/02/13, 18:43

    @Wraith, I never claimed that MS had influence on the Burton Group report. In fact I stated that was happy to believe that they simply were misled by their anonymous sources.

    In any case, the OFE, FFII, ODF Alliance are advocacy groups. None of them have set up shop selling their services as independent technology consultants and analysts. That an advocacy group picks sides and tries to influence opinions is not surprising. In fact it is expected. As you certainly know, Microsoft has their own variety of cheerleaders, CompTIA, their partner community, Miguel “OOXML is a Superb Standard” de Icaza, etc.

    Independent analysts (such as the Burton Group), on the other hand, from them we would expect accuracy, insight,and when errors are made, timely retractions.

    @alphadog, that’s a good idea. I’ll pass it on.

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