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IBM's antic carrying on

A couple of interesting items prompt me to write a quick post about IBM.

Jack Schofield, the Guardian's computer editor has written a story for ComputerWeekly.com titled "Open battle will boost compatibility" that discusses Microsoft's recent vote to add ODF 1.0 to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) list, and contrasts that approach with IBM's negative behaviour regarding Ecma-376 OpenXML. Jack comments:

"But you still have to wonder why IBM, which usually puts a lot of effort into talking up its openness, put itself in a position where it looks hypocritical."

Well I have to admit I've burned a few cycles myself thinking through that one! But then from their public statements you'd expect IBM to support "Open Mainframe", but they clearly don't. I know from my own experience that IBM has no shortage of smart talented people, and I can't believe that some of these people can't see the hypocrisy and falsehood in their public messaging. Taking OpenXML as an example, Bob Sutor, IBM's Vice President for Standards wrote only yesterday

"OpenXML is, well, Microsoft’s personal and private XML specification for its product. As I’ve said multiple times, Microsoft has every right in the universe to have its own formats, but that is different from making private, proprietary formats into international standards that no one else will be able to implement in their entirety.

If you want insurance for the future that you will not be locked into the whims and technical decisions of a single vendor protecting its products and marketshare, go with ODF. If you are just fine with the avoidable loss of your freedoms to choose from a range of applications and are willing to commit to a single vendor, go with OOXML."

Sorry Bob but that's what Harry G. Frankfurt calls bullshit. What's more - enough people have heard both sides of the debate that you're starting to be called on it now - as the Guardian's Jack Schofield points out in his article,

"When Open XML was standardised as ECMA-376, the committee included Apple, Intel, the British Library and many others."

Hmm, the British Library - they might be considered at least as competent as Bob in figuring out how to protect our digital heritage wouldn't you think? As it happens the British Library's, head of e-Architecture recently made a presentation to the British Standards Institute about document formats - his presentation is available from the BSI here, take a look at what he has to say.

The British Library - The Higlander Myth

Well he clearly doesn't buy the "there can/should be only one" argument.

British Library - The Simple Office Document Myth  

and he's realistic about how people in the real world use documents.

The British Library - The Monolithic Myth

The 6000 pages are too much argument doesn't seem to hold water either. And finally, in conclusion

The British Library - Conclusions

Exactly. It's increasingly clear to anyone who looks at this issue with any level of intellectual honesty that there's no downside to OpenXML, and that this isn't a zero-sum game. No matter how hard the ODF lobby try to pretend this is a one-or-the-other choice, it's clearly not. Look at the response from the British Government to a petition that was created on No 10's petition site.

"... No single format provides a universal solution for all types of digital information, and The National Archives therefore actively monitors and evaluates a wide range of existing and emerging formats (including OpenDocument Format). A policy on digital preservation, which includes guidance on the selection of sustainable data formats based on open standards, is being formulated by The National Archives, and will help define the standards for desktop systems. ..."

Now look at Wouter Van Vugt's post, "Legislation for open document standards". Wouter describes some of what's going on in the Dutch ISO/IEC JTC 1 technical committee responsible for analyzing the Ecma-376 OpenXML standard. Wouter writes

"I am amazed at the level of critique being raised by IBM against Office Open XML, ranging from low-blow, to plainly incorrect ... There have already been numerous occasion during the meeting where someone raised a remark such as 'even documents saved from Word do not validate against the schemas' and I ask to explain a bit further because I haven't experienced the same, only to have a reply 'I'll get back to you'."

[Update: I notice Brian Jones' has commented on Wouter's post too.] 

And finally, Microsft's Doug Mahugh writes

Speaking of IBM's role in the technical committees, Rob Weir's "Documents for the Long Term" is a typical example of how IBM tries to influence the standards process. XML, Dublin Core, and Unicode are presented as fundamental components of ODF, while none of those are mentioned in the corresponding diagram for Open XML, and other standards such as XML schema are omitted from the Open XML diagram. Even the personal computer itself is presented as part of Open XML's "duct tape and bailing wire," but not included in the ODF diagram.

IBM creates posts like this and then sends emails to members of the technical committees worldwide with comments like "Check out Rob Weir's blog on a daily basis..outstanding writing and insight on ODF and OOXML." (That's an actual quote from an IBM employee's recent email to a large number of technical committee members.)

Rob Weir's blog is called "An antic disposition". Shakespeare's Hamlet adopts "an antic disposition" as a deception - he pretends to be mad. It's time for IBM to drop the antics and start supporting customer choice, open standards and interoperability.

Comments

Weblogul lui Zoli said:

Daca ii veti citi pe Bob Sutor sau Rob Weir , veti intelege de ce spun asta. Pentru o firma care sustine

# June 8, 2007 8:26 AM

Doug Mahugh said:

Preeti Krishna has announced new drops of the Excel and PowerPoint converters for ODF 1.0 formats over

# June 8, 2007 1:30 PM

Daniel said:

Whatever the circumstances, even if IBM or whoever else is being unfair to OOXML, I feel that nothing anybody at Microsoft says regarding document formats should be taken too seriously until Microsoft truly follows through on its rhetoric and allows the formats to compete in the market on level ground by allowing ODF to be integrated to Office 2007 as a first class format if that's what the customer chooses.  If Microsoft does that, then I'd be more likely to believe that the company is acting in good faith in regard to file formats, and not trying to squash competition underhandedly.

# June 8, 2007 3:56 PM

Bubba said:

Daniel, are you suggesting that every software company should be required to invest in developing support for every standard format?  And hasn't Microsoft funded the ODF translator anyway?  I don't see how Microsoft is "not allowing" ODF support in Office.

# June 8, 2007 5:35 PM

Matusow's Blog said:

A quick note for a beautiful Friday afternoon. 1) Check out the news that Tom Hanrahan has joined MS

# June 8, 2007 11:53 PM

Daniel said:

Hi Bubba,

No, I'm not saying they should be required to invest support for every standard format (except perhaps by market forces, which I think are partly what MS is scared of here).  I'm saying that MS Office 2007 has technical limitations in place that prevent other formats from being well-integrated with it.  I think it's great that MS funded the translator project- it seems like a good team; however, the technical limitations Office 2007 has in place prevent any outside parties, including the translator developers, from integrating their work with MS's code in a way that isn't extremely cumbersome to an end-user such as myself.  MS has essentially claimed that this was not at all intentional, and that they would have provided this ability if only it wasn't too technically difficult; however, they're essentially claiming that because they didn't initally write their code well enough to handle such issues, it's just too tough of a problem so that even they themselves have a hard time adding in formats.  There is probably a modicum of truth to these statements, in that it seems from what they've said that they're still using really old code to convert documents using the RTF format as an intermediary (I don't understand the specifics).  However, I find it extremely doubtful that they couldn't remedy this situation if they wanted to, even if it did take some coding (from my lay perspective, the fact that they are saying that it is too difficult a task to add something to the default Safe-As dialog makes me think that either a) they aren't being completely forthcoming or b) the thing was really poorly programmed and could use some attention anyway).  If they are indeed not being dishonest about the fact that they really would want to enable first-class file format functionality (either using the translator they sponsored or other translators), then what I'm saying is that they should at least announce that they intend to fix the problem in the near future, with a patch or an optional add-on.  Otherwise, it is really hard to believe that they want the formats to compete in the market like they constantly say they do.  Note that with Novell's version of OpenOffice, for example, I think you will be able to easily have it save and open Microsoft's .doc or .docx formats in a manner that isn't anywhere close to as painful as MS has made it for users to open and save .odt in Microsoft Office 2007.  Until Microsoft allows for something similar with Office 2007, all of their claims about caring about interoperability, and all of their statements about wanting healthy competition, seem largely disingenous to me.  (And their complaints about IBM seem to me like there's a big bully whining to the teacher that there's another, smaller bully moving in on his lunch money-stealing turf.)  Obviously there are some great people at Microsoft who do care about interoperability and competition based on product merit, but in my book it's ultimately the actions of the company that matter-- i.e., how difficult do they make it for me, as an end user, to use ODF if I choose to?  For me, the test of whether Microsoft is being honest or not in regard to file formats is simple-- how much of a pain have they made it to round-trip an .odt file, and to use .odt as my default format?  While it's great that they funded the translator team, what's even more important for interoperability is enabling first-class format integration (for any of the teams working on translators, be it the MS-sponsored team, the Sun team, or others).  That move by Microsoft would definitely show good faith; in its absence, it is hard to take seriously their claims of wanting interoperability, and hard not to see their overall decisions on file formats as being anti-competitively motivated.

# June 9, 2007 4:34 AM

Jason Matusow said:

Daniel -

For disclosure purposes and so you understand my bias - I am the Sr. Director of Interoperabilty at Microsoft and have worked closely with the author of this blog for a long time, and with the Open XML team at MS.

Interop is a priority for us - just as it is for any company creating software that is sold into the market for use in business computing. Consumer stuff may, or may not be built with interop as a priority due to user requirements, maturity of technology, maturity of a market, etc. (think iPOD or XBOX vs Windows Server or IBM Websphere)

As for the issue of document formats I think it is good to look at the idea of choice. You have the choice to use a wide array of different office productivity software. The vast majority of online documents are not in Microsoft's format, they are in Adobe's. The success of Microsoft Office is based on the fact that it is world-class software, and thus it is widely used. Adobe's software is world-class software and it is widely used. Google, IBM, Corel, SUN, and others are competing to build apps that people will want to use...and they are available for you to choose as well. The first, and most important choice is the application.

The people building those apps must consider interoperability and how best to achieve it in the hopes of making their customers' happy. Translation of doc formats has long been a top choice for interop, as have import/export, programming interfaces, documentation and other vehicles as well.

If you want to have the best-of-breed of a given format, then look to those orgs doing the most work with them. Others who are interested in interop will be pursuing translation in order to give you more flexibility - and that is what leads to choice for you as a user and provides a means of interop between those solutions.

I don't think a world of vanilla software is nearly as interesting as one where people are constantly striving to bring diversity to the market with new ideas and really compelling software. I think we should all be encouraging greater competition and choice rather than limiting it. This is what Stephen is pointing out about the contradicting points from IBM in the blog entry above.

# June 10, 2007 1:53 AM

Daniel said:

I didn't really disagree with Stephen's point.   On reflection, I was being unfair by saying "nothing anybody at Microsft says should be taken too seriously",  and linking my beef with the first class format to Stephen's post-- I apologize for that.  I do still feel strongly about the comments I made regarding how Microsoft should enable first class format interoperability for third-party translators (like that of the MS-sponsored translator team) in order to show good faith and to better serve customers like myself who would desire such functionality.

# June 11, 2007 1:04 AM

Bruno said:

Microsoft voted YES for ODF's ISO ratification, and voted YES for ODF's ANSI ratification.  Clearly, they're not trying to blofk ODF.  So Daniel, move on.  IBM is the one that's trying to block OOXML (being the only NO vote at ECMA, and being the prime opponent for ISO standardization).  Focus on the real party that's blocking choice for users - IBM.

# June 12, 2007 3:41 AM

Daniel said:

Bruno- again, I wasn't really disagreeing with Stephen's points about IBM.  It is quite possible that both IBM _and_ Microsoft don't always act in good faith.  I've seen what I consider severe FUD and disingenuity coming from both MS execs and pro-ODF execs.  Just because IBM does something disingenuous doesn't mean that MS is completely in the right, and vice-versa.  

I think your interpretation of the YES vote relies on an incomplete understanding of politics-- in politics, a YES vote for something that is obviously going to win does not necessarily mean a party would vote for that issue if theirs was the only vote that mattered.    It might, but not necessarily.

My (admittedly off-topic) point was that for me, as a software consumer, the most tangible way of determining whether Microsoft really cares about making their applications interoperable with ODF is by by purchasing Office 2007, downloading the translator that Microsoft sponsored, and attempting to use it.  I did so, and it was clear to me that at some level somebody at Microsoft made the decision that the process of using the translator should be cumbersome to the end user.  I am not sure whether the decision was an active one or a passive one, but that ultimately doesn't matter too much to me, as first-class integration of 3rd party format translators is not something that should be overly burdensome to implment.  I feel Microsoft should allow at least the same sort of handling of ODF by its products as other companies like Novell allow for OOXML; despite Microsoft's legacy code issues, it should not be substantially more difficult for Microsoft to provide the functionality than it was for Novell or other open source programmers to do.

Again, regardless of the above, my original post was overly emotional and it was unfair, not just because it was off-topic, but because I basically said that people shouldn't listen to Microsoft employees' arguments based on this particular file-integration issue.  That's obviously childish and wrong, and it's largely that kind of Manichean thinking that causes many communication difficulties between the worlds of MS and FOSS software developers.  Not that open communication will solve everything; i.e., I'm not going to change my viewpoint that free software should stay free (as in freedom), and I probably won't change my viewpoint that increased ODF adoption would lead to a better consumer market than would increased OOXML adoption (despite the fact that it seems Microsoft has some good arguments in regard to the lack of specification of spreadsheet formulas in ODF, and despite bad behavior from IBM and other ODF supporters).  

However, even though IBM's current business interests align with what I think is the right thing for consumers, I'm not blind to the fact that IBM as a company can be disingenuous in stating its case.  And I don't hesitate to believe that IBM would choose to do something that wasn't in consumers' best interest, if it happened to be best for IBM's bottom line.  It's good to have watchdogs, with open lines of communication, on both sides of any discussion, so it's obviously good for folks like Stephen to point out when IBM isn't being completely honest, especially if pointing stuff out is not done in a done in a disrespectful or overly slanted way (which unfortunately is often how many, though not most, pro-FOSSers approach these issues; I've been guilty of it myself, I'm sure).  

(As a side note, one reason I support FOSS is because I believe there is an inherent watchdog ability built in to the model of transparent, forkable software development, making it a lot more difficult-- though of course not impossible-- for companies to be disingenuous.)

# June 13, 2007 12:49 AM

Notes2Self.net said:

So says the Guardian 's Technology Editor, Jack Schofield , who has followed up his computerweekly article

# June 22, 2007 2:55 AM

Doug Mahugh said:

It's been quite a year for those who have been blogging about the Open XML file formats. Here's a look

# December 31, 2007 2:43 AM

Noticias externas said:

It's been quite a year for those who have been blogging about the Open XML file formats. Here's

# December 31, 2007 3:15 AM

Doug Mahugh said:

It's been quite a year for those who have been blogging about the Open XML file formats. Here's a look

# July 1, 2011 1:41 AM

Doug Mahugh said:

Preeti Krishna has announced new drops of the Excel and PowerPoint converters for ODF 1.0 formats over

# July 1, 2011 2:09 AM