Yesterday, OpenOffice.org announced that IBM would become a formal – and substantial - contributor to that organization. IBM's contributions will include 35 dedicated programmers as well as editing, accessibility, and other code that it has developed for its ODF compliant products. The OpenOffice.org press release was brief, as was an FAQ that was only available at the OpenOffice site for a few hours. As a result, I got in touch with IBM to see if I could interview someone to learn more, and was able to spend a half an hour on the phone with Doug Heintzman later the same day. Doug is Director of Strategy for the Lotus division at IBM, and therefore in the know about how the decision was made, and what the future may hold (Notes, with over 100 million global users, implements ODF).
As I noted yesterday, IBM's joining OpenOffice.org is significant news, because it boosts ODF's credibility as a serious competitor to Microsoft's Office. That leads to the logical question of why IBM has only been an informal supporter of this project in the past, why it has decided to come inside the tent now, and what its participation may portend for the future. I posed, and Doug answered, these and other questions in the interview. Please note that while the interview is presented below as questions and answers, this is not a word for word record (I can't type quite that fast). What I show as Doug's responses are therefore close to verbatim some of the time, and paraphrases in others. Since Doug has not corrected the final result, these answers should therefore not be considered to be direct quotes.
A final note: when I do an interview, I try to create as complete a contemporaneous record of events and motivations as possible, and then maintain that record indefinitely. One of the unfortunate aspects of on-line journalism is that there is obviously pressure to compress stories to at most a few screens of text. Most interviews are therefore shortened to a handful of questions that may touch on the highlights of a current issue, but give little context, and will provide little value in the future when (for example) historians, economists and others try and figure out what was going on at the time.
Rather than try to dramatically cut an interview back to reflect what I think the "story" is, I reproduce the interview in full. It is often true that what may seem unimportant today may be of great interest in the future. If value judgments are made by journalists and bloggers in the present, then the original sources materials upon which future histories will in part be based are being censored, albeit innocently. My hope is that this site will provide an uncommonly rich resource for future historians that may be very interested in how, for example, the world came to recognize the importance of open formats, how the commercial and governmental battles were fought over that goal, and why the effort failed or (hopefully) succeeded. If someone does look here to learn more, they will find over a thousand blog entries, interviews, archived news articles, press releases, and much more from which to form their judgments about how a critical transition was made by society as it coped with its headlong rush into a globally networked future.
And now, on with the interview.
Q: In an InfoWorld interview you gave earlier today, you noted that the failure of OOXML to achieve adoption in the first phase of JTC1 voting influenced the timing of today's announcement. What effect, if any, did Google's inclusion of StarOffice 8 in its Google Pack have on IBM's decision?
A: None whatsoever. We've been speaking with members of the OpenOffice community for most of the last 16 to 18 month to see how we could work more closely with that community. In other words, this is a project that we've been moving towards joining for a very long time. We've also been working with Google and other industry players to see what the greater potential of this project could be.
It's important to see that this is part of a much bigger and more fundamental story. IBM invented the word processor back in 1956. It's been in its modern structure for the past 15 years without making much progress. The paradigm of an incumbent can work well for a while, because life is easy – in one sense – when everyone uses the same product. But today that paradigm has become out of synch with the needs of our customers and the health of the industry.
In particular, we've been monitoring the document industry in the context of the evolution of standards and new architectures, such as SOA (service oriented architectures), and looking at how these parts and potentials relate to each other. The emergence of the Web as a platform and the emergence of Web 2.0 as a reality really gives us the expectation of a next-generation paradigm that takes us beyond the Office era.
In this new paradigm, what we think of as a document becomes a container – a container that's filled with what you might think of as fragments. Those fragments can be linked through semantics to rich media of many sorts. We'll be able to work with those fragments dynamically in exciting ways. If we're clever about it, we'll be able to link these fragments, whether they be text, or graphics, or widgets, back through to their sources. We'll have a different way of looking at things, and of working with those things.
That's where something like OpenOffice.org comes in, because it can be part of the launch pad from which this new paradigm can be released. Efforts like OpenOffice.org will allow us to move beyond the traditional way of doing things, and to work in a much more modular way.
One last point: Not so very long ago, Lou Gerstner, then the CEO of IBM, announced that we would invest a billion dollars in Linux. That allowed customers to have confidence that they could invest in Linux themselves. In other words, our announcement provided a catalyst, and (we think) that IBM's announcement had a massive and cumulative effect, bringing other vendors into the market as customers took more interest in Linux.
We want today's announcement to help have the same effect. We hope that is will help the various pieces of the current puzzle come together, so that this "beyond Office" concept can take hold as more and more people start investing their time helping this vision become real.
Q: Following up on that vision, what else might IBM want to see OpenOffice.org do?
A: Let's step back. As you know, we've been working on our own distinct implementation of ODF for some time, which is now shipping with the current release of Lotus Notes. We've been investing in creating many complementary things in Notes that aren't in the core OpenOffice code, such as the SmartScreen filters and iAccessibility2. So we're going to be offering these capabilities back into the OpenOffice core, and will continue to offer such features. In so doing, these features will become part of the OpenOffice roadmap as well as part of the roadmap for our own product.
Of course, when you look at OpenOffice, you see a code base for multiple distributions. We'll continue to look towards doing some different types of packaging to distinguish our offering from those of other ODF-compliant vendors. We don't look at ourselves as competing with these other distributions. Instead, we look at all of our efforts as representing an opportunity to leverage off each others efforts, creating a better common base upon which we can all innovate and differentiate. As a result, we expect that we'll be working with OpenOffice.org for a long time to come.
Q: Do you see a need for changes in the OpenOffice governance structure at this time?
A: Good question. It's no secret that this has been an issue for us for some time, and we haven't viewed OpenOffice.org as being as healthy as it might be in this respect. At the same time, we're mindful of the substantial investment that Sun has made in this project. So we've been working closely with Sun for quite a while to try and talk through these issues. At times, those discussions have been very animated.
We've got an awful lot of ideas about how OpenOffice.org could be restructured to be more responsive to the community, and we respect the fact that we also need to balance the needs of that community with Sun's having mostly carried the ball to date. But we've kind of come to a decision that we've spent a lot of time making these points from outside the organization, and it's time to start making them from the inside instead.
We think that there's a broad based consensus that some governance and structural changes are in order that would make the OpenOffice project more attractive to others. We expect to have a louder voice as we become a more active member, and as we try and help make OpenOffice become more active and effective. Certainly our involvement won't be just technical. We'll want it to succeed, and won't be shy in offering our opinions about how to make sure that happens.
Q: How about the interplay between open standards and open source? Open standards only work when everyone agrees to maintain certain constraints on what they can do, while one of the tenets of open source is being able to do whatever you want. Will it be tough to reconcile those realities with OpenOffice, or does it help that the standard came first?
A: Good question, and the answer is "yes and no." It goes an awfully long way that there's a pragmatic, existing standard, which provides a real incentive for everyone to work with the standard. One of the biggest priorities we've had, for obvious reasons, is maintaining interoperability. As a result, we intend to partner with others to build protocols to maintain high-level interoperability, and I'm confident that we can make that work. And it's worth noting that this isn't as hard to do with ODF as it is with Linux, where the goal is to allow multiple distributions to all work with the same applications. With ODF, we can manage things more easily, as we're dealing application to application.
But there will be real challenges in achieving our big visions, because we want to go so far beyond traditional ways of working with documents. We want to work semantically with widgets, and individual graphics, and be able to go in and out of files, and subset for different types of devices, like mobile devices and kiosks. And we'd also like to enable different types of users with different types of concerns with different layers to be able to do what they want to do in those layers. So the definition of a "document" begins to morph into a very different type of reality.
In order to do that, some of our priorities may have to change. Traditionally, we've grown accustomed to expecting pixel-perfect documents. But now we may often be more concerned about the content than with that level of fidelity. We may be willing to make some compromises in some circumstances, and we may want to throw out the original format in others, when we want to automatically reformat fragments from multiple sources into a new document with, for example, consistent fonts specified for the container. When we create that container, we might want to set that formatting as a default, but you'd also have a lot of freedom to work with the end result.
These types of goals will all create new engineering challenges, and we'll all have to work together in a very open manner to solve these challenges. We'll be doing that with other industry leaders so we can unlock the exciting value we see in this new paradigm.
Q: You've mentioned semantics several times. Will the existing W3C standards be adequate to the task, or will additional or other tools be needed instead?
A: Certainly the W3C standards will be used. They're already in ODF 1.2, and we're expecting to leverage off those these standards to do some really clever things. As we see what people come up with as they do other creative things, it may be that we need to come up with other tools and standards that we can't see yet.
Q: The iAccessbility2 project was handed over to the Free Standards Group last year, and is now operated under the Linux Foundation umbrella as one of their programs supporting accessibility. What changed hands then, and what will change hands now?
A: We handed off the project and the specification last year, but not the implementation that we were creating for inclusion in our own products. Now, the actual editors and other code that we created will be contributed as well. That code is the result of a three-year long project, and represents a very substantial effort.
It's also important to note that we've been working very closely with a bunch of partners that create accessibility tools. Notes already has Jaws and other tools available to it, and other vendors of ODF compliant products will gain access to these tools as well. As more products use OpenOffice core code, the market for iAccessible2 enabled tools will grow, providing more incentives for accessibility tool vendors to make sure that their products can serve customers with ODF compliant products.
Q: How does the new Notes release compare to Office as respects accessibility?
A: That's a bit of a complicated question, since it involves the potential for accessibility on the one hand, and the availability of tools on the other. We think, and a report titled Accessibility Issues with Office Open XML by the Adaptive Technology Resource Center at the University of Toronto agreed, that ODF compliant products are much more elegant in this regard and have much greater accessibility potential than does Office. We've been a very great contributor to accessibility – and we're proud of it. We want to continue to help grow the incentives for tool vendors to work with ODF so that the market for such tools reaches critical mass.
Q: Within hours of the OpenOffice.org press release we began to see speculation about how IBM might be able to help out OpenOffice's email and other capabilities. Mary Jo Foley and Dana Blankenhorn, at ZDNet.com, for example, posed the question this way: "Has the Outlook killer for OpenOffice finally arrived?" Are there voids in the marketplace that you could see IBM filling?
A: It's kind of an interesting question. There are various initiatives out there, and we'll be bringing things to the marketplace as well. We'll be trying to make it easy for people to author rich content that can be integrated into our stack and the products of others. And as in other cases, if we see a place where the marketplace needs a little prodding to become healthier, we'll look for ways to help it grow in that direction, in our own self-interest as well as for everyone else.
That said, we don't want to overburden any particular community with too much, so we don't want to set any specific expectations for OpenOffice.org in this regard at this time.
Q:One final question. As a former user of WordPerfect that still misses many of its best features – is there any hope for being able to use software with "show codes" capability again?
A: Who knows? I guess that's up to Corel and to what their plans may be. Or maybe there's a way to pull it off without violating any patent rights they hold.
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