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Wednesday, July 30 2014 @ 06:24 PM CDT

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Microsoft Drops the Big One on ODF (Day II)

OpenDocument and OOXMLThe dust hasn't settled yet, but more of Microsoft's strategy is becoming clear. Here is a comprehensive review of what's become available so far.Yesterday, Microsoft let the other shoe drop on a two-pronged attack on the support that has been building for the OpenDocument OASIS Format (ODF). It's still far too early to say that the dust has settled, but I'll attempt to pull together here the most significant pieces of information that I've located since last night's post, and what it all means.

Let's start with what Microsoft is saying. Starting with the official resources, here is the address for Microsoft's PressPass page for journalists tracking the story. There's a long Q&A there that is notable primarily for the degree of technical detail that's included. Your guide for much of the technical tour will be Jean Paoli, Microsoft's senior director of XML architecture, who is the subject of an in-house interview. Watch for more material to show up at this page in the days ahead.

The hitherto taciturn Alan Yates , who has been the principal spokesperson for Microsoft regarding ODF has done more talking for attribution in the past 24 hours, by several orders of magnitude, than I've read from him on line over the past three months. Thus, if you cull through the (currently) 74 "all related stories" at Google News in response to an "Ecma + Microsoft" search, you'll find many articles that are simply rehashes of the Microsoft press release, but others in which Yates answers different questions and reveals something new. I'll highlight some examples below.

Returning to the technical front, there is another interview of Microsoft's Jean Paoli, which includes enlightening exchanges such as the following:

Q: How do I know that there isn’t some sort of hidden Microsoft agenda?

Jean Paoli:
The only agenda is widespread support for the Office Open XML formats. It takes more than Microsoft to really win the trust of millions of customers for a standard technology.

More significantly, Paoli mentions in passing that the dialogue with Ecma has been going on since the Spring -- meaning that Microsoft has been hedging its bets for quite a while.

Jason Matusow is another Microsoft employee that has a website, and has something to say about the format announcement. Matusow's post is best read in juxtaposition with Steve Walli's excellent commentary on the announcement (Steve, a former Microsoft employee, knows whereof he speaks, and of whom he is speaking). He introduces Jason and his blogpost as follows:

One of the more interesting Microsoft commentaries is from Jason Matusow (Microsoft Shared Source maven) . It's good that he's getting his opinions in order. Jason is a master of rhetoric, a brilliant presenter, and a glutton for punishment as the man from Microsoft that gets to present world-wide on Microsoft's open source and Shared Source strategies.

Steve addresses Matusow's contentions, along with most of the other Microsoft sources noted above and below, in the context of what is being promised, and has been promised in prior, similar situations.

And finally, before leaving Microsoft to look at other sources, there is Brian Jones' Blog. Jones' long post is notable for its information on the covenant not to sue that Microsoft has promised will accompany its offer of its formats to Ecma and ISO. In part, he says:

In addition to this move towards standardization, we are also going to make some changes to our licensing approach. I've definitely heard the concern from folks over the past few months around the licenses. We want to make this issue much simpler as well as address the core concern, which was that some folks thought we might somehow sue people for using the formats. Obviously we don't want anyone to have that concern, so in order to clear up any other uncertainties related to how and where you can use our formats, we are moving away from our royalty free license, and instead we are going to provide a very simple and general statement that we make an irrevocable commitment not to sue. I'm not a lawyer, but from what I can see, this "covenant not to sue" looks like it should clear the way for GPL development which was a concern for some folks.

There are, not surprisingly, a lot of comments from gentle readers at Jones' site, and he has been good enough to answer some of the questions posed, so this is again a site to monitor for further information. Specifically, he stated last night that he would post the text of the licensing commitment Monday night or this morning -- Microsoft has not promised to post it at its own site until Wednesday (as of this writing, Jones has not yet posted the language, but I'll update this post if he does).

So what do we know so far about the specifics of the promised covenant not to sue? The most interesting description comes once again from Alan Yates, in an interview to a Boston Globe reporter. There, he says in part:

The new license that will accompany the Open XML format with the standards organization will go well beyond traditional standards licensing and will be very positive for the vast majority of developers, even open-source developers," he said.

"We have gone further with this license, explicitly to widen the net for developers. Basically, it is a broad promise from Microsoft not to sue anyone for use of the formats. So that kind of broad, yet simple, promise from Microsoft will last well into the future and will appeal to all developers," Yates said.

This would also make it easier for competing desktop application suites like Sun Microsystems Inc.'s branded StarOffice and Openoffice.org to be compatible with Office, he said.

The license will be posted to the Office XML Web site on Wednesday, along with additional information about the submission to Ecma International.
What does Yates' statement that the terms will be "very positive for the vast majority of developers portend? Interesting question, and supposedly we won't have long to wait to find out. Other statements of note:

With regard to the competing Ecma-approved Open Document Format for Office Applications standard, Yates said Microsoft's standard would differ. "You have to understand that the Open Document group wrote their specification to satisfy a certain number of customer requirements, and we have done the same. We have had a very different and much more ambitious set of requirements to meet. So we are meeting the requirements of backwards compatibility with all of the billions of documents that are in previous Office versions," he said.

It also would give customers the confidence that they could store documents in a format that would be long-lasting and even permanent, along with the promise that there would be many tools available to support the document use, he said, adding that customers would "not be reliant on one product or one version of a previous product from the past in order to open up those documents."

Which provides an apt segue to the question of What does this mean for Massachusetts? It appears that Microsoft's behind the scenes messaging has been quite effective, as noted in this section of the same article:

[S]tate Sen. Marc Pacheco said the state should consider adopting Microsoft's Open XML along with OpenDocument if the company's format is certified by Ecma. "If you have a product that's going to be accepted in the international community, and they still exclude it here, then it's really about restricting Microsoft and not about open standards," Pacheco said.

The senator said Microsoft Office has features that make it accessible to visually impaired state workers, and he was concerned that abandoning Office would make it harder for people with disabilities to access state records and documents.

There are three sad features of this statement. First, Pacheco has freely admitted in the past that he doesn't really understand what standards are all about, so (not surprisingly) one standard should be as good as the next, right? In fact, Yates had this to say to the Globe about whether the Microsoft formats -- and the covenant not to sue - should pass muster with the Massachusetts Information Technology Division:

Yates said Open XML is in the spirit of the Massachusetts initiative, although he conceded that it still "doesn't meet the explicit policy" of the state that recognizes OpenDocument as its standard.

The second is that (a) ISO adoption is at least a year away, (b) Ecma, and then ISO, adoption cannot be assumed, and (c) even if it is, no one knows yet how much the formats will be used, and by whom. In short, if one were to resurrect the original objections Microsoft raised to ODF, many of them could play back with equal validity to counter what Microsoft is now saying about its own formats.

And finally, while the ODF community has committed to meet - and surpass - Office in terms of accessibility, there is no statement anywhere from Microsoft that I could locate addressing accessibility issues and the Microsoft formats. As poignantly asked by one visitor to Brian Jones' site:

What steps have MS taken with regard to the Office XML file formats in relation to accessibility? I'm not referring to the Office Apps. themselves, I'm only too familiar with how a11y works in MS apps. and the constant race of screenreader makers to keep up. Rather, I'm interested to know if an accessibility project, similar to the one created for ODF, will be created to address a11y requirements in the schema definitions themselves.

No answer from Jones so far, but perhaps one will follow later today.

At the moment, most commentators are focusing on the immediate impact of currentevents. David Berlind, who is on vacation and writes that he is therefore not tempted to spend hours on research, has nonetheless posted a thought piece on the Microsoft announcement titled Microsoft ECMA/ISO move could give Office formats new lease on life . He asks a lot of good long term questions, and offers some interesting responses.

So where to end for now? Odds are, I could do another Google search right now and have enough new material to start all over again. I'll do that later today, but not now. Instead, I'll close with this prescient quote from Steve Walli:

I've long argued that technology standards is a classical game of diplomacy where after the receptions and tea parties are over, the job is to defend sovereign territory while expanding one's area of economic influence. If you're really good, your best work goes unseen.

By Steve's insightful definition, Microsoft has been a master of diplomacy -- with Massachusetts -- with Ecma -- with Apple and Intel -- and doubtless with many others, the results of which will become apparent over the days ahead.

Whatever else one thinks, one has to admit that Microsoft is very good at what it does. Of course, since we're talking about Microsoft, that also means that there are likely to be a few bugs in its strategy. They're bound to pop up sooner or later.

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