Putting the OpenDocument Foundation to Bed (without its supper)
Friday, November 09 2007 @ 07:00 AM CST
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
Wednesday I attended the W3C Technical Plenary Day festivities, which included a brief press conference with Tim Berners-Lee, interesting insights into the W3C's work in progress and future plans, and much more (you can view the agenda here). And it also gave me a chance to sit with Chris Lilley, a W3C employee whose responsibilities include Interaction Domain Leader, Co-Chair W3C SVG Working Group, W3C Graphics Activity Lead and Co-Chair, W3C Hypertext CG. What that combination of titles means is that he is the "go to" guy at W3C to learn what W3C's CDF standard is all about.
CDF is one of the very many useful projects that W3C has been laboring on, but not one that you would have been likely to have heard much about. Until recently, that is, when Gary Edwards, Sam Hiser and Marbux, the management (and perhaps sole remaining members) of the OpenDocument Foundation decided that CDF was the answer to all of the problems that ODF was designed to address. This announcement gave rise to a flurry of press attention that Sam Hiser has collected here. As others (such as Rob Weir) have already documented, these articles gave the Foundation's position far more attention than it deserved.
The most astonishing piece was written by ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley. Early on in her article she stated that, "the ODF camp might unravel before Microsoft’s rival Office Open XML (OOXML) comes up for final international standardization vote early next year." All because Gary, Sam and Marbux have decided that ODF does not meet their needs. Astonishing indeed, given that there is no available evidence to support such a prediction.
So what is this CDF, and should it be considered to be an alternative to ODF? Here's what Chris Lilley had to say, reconstructed from my notes (in other words, this is not a direct quote):
So we were in a meeting when these articles about the Foundation and CDF started to appear, and we were really puzzled. CDF isn't anything like ODF at all – it's an "interoperability agreement," mainly focused on two other specifications - XHTML and SVG. You'd need to use another W3C specification, called Web Interactive Compound Document (WICD, pronounced "wicked"), for exporting, and even then you could only view, and not edit the output.
The one thing I'd really want your readers to know is that CDF (even together with WICD) was not created to be, and isn't suitable for use, as an office format.
Here are some other takeaways from my conversation with Chris:
- Although they would be welcome to become members, Neither Gary, Sam nor Marbux are members of W3C or the CDF working group
- The W3C has never been contacted by anyone from the Foundation about CDF. After the articles began appearing, the W3C sent an inquiry to the Foundation, and received only a general reply in response
- The CDF working group was not chartered to achieve conversion between formats
- Although he hasn't spent a lot of time trying to unravel what Gary has written on the subject, he can't make any sense out of why the Foundation thinks that CDF makes sense as a substitute for ODF
So how do we make any sense out of what the Foundation is saying?
Here's a start: The Foundation has been very clear that it thinks that the OASIS technical committee has taken the wrong direction in its development approach with ODF. Disagreeing with an architectural approach is, of course, an opinion that any member of any TC is entitled to hold. Unfortunately, the Foundation wasn't willing to take non-acceptance of its preferred approach lying down.
The simple fact is that the Foundation got out voted. No more, no less, no back story – end of story. Instead of accepting the fact that that's how an open process can work, however, the Foundation decided to attack the process (It's not open!), OASIS (It's controlled by Sun!), and even ODF itself (It's doomed to fail!). Meanwhile, those that had worked with them in the past fell away, and the only voices that are supporting them, the Foundation or their approach now are, predictably, the proponents of OOXML.
Here's where things stand today:
- The Foundation's former members are not supporting Gary, Sam and Marbux
- No one has spoken up to support their view of CDF as an alternative
- They are not working with the W3C at this time, and no one at W3C is working with CDF in the manner they are proposing
- CDF is not an appropriate substitute for ODF
- The CDF working group is not chartered to provide what Gary, Sam and Marbux want to try and accomplish, even assuming that what they want is technically possible
All of which takes us back to the question, What were Gary, Sam and Marbux thinking?
The answer, I think, can be found by applying the wise advice of a 14th century Franciscan friar named William of Ockham. The precept he offered is commonly referred to as "Occam's Razor," and a common paraphrase goes like this:
All things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one
Here, the simplest explanation would appear to be simply that when the Foundation's founders decided to turn out the lights, they decided to poke a sharp stick in the eye of those that had rejected their approach.
If that sounds like too harsh a judgment, we can fall back to the next most charitable one, which is that the founders are so convinced of their own insight that the rest of the world must be wrong – all of those community members in all of those countries around the world that rallied to the ODF cause - must be deluded and not capable of the same clear vision that the founders of the Foundation possess.
Whatever the explanation, the Foundation's founders clearly do not understand what standards are all about. Standard setting is necessarily a consensus process – no one has to implement a standard, so everyone's needs must be met to a sufficient degree for them to support the final product. Sometimes that means that the best technical approach is taken, and sometimes it's the next best.
As with politics, it often takes a great deal of support from many constituencies to successfully launch a standard. In order to succeed against an entrenched product like Office, it takes an unusual amount of support from a very broad coalition of stakeholders. Absent that support, failure is assured.
Time will tell whether Gary, Sam and Marbux are right that ODF can't succeed. Unfortunately, the way in which they chose to disengage has done nothing to advance their cause. But it has undermined, insignificantly, the good work of the thousands of people that continue to work, in a far more politically realistic fashion, to ensure the success of ODF – not to mention those that sent in donations to a foundation formed:
To support the community of volunteers in promoting, improving and providing user assistance for ODF and software designed to operate on data in this format.
What a shame.
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Chris supplied the following information for those that want to learn more about what CDF is really about:
I mentioned four CDF specifications; here are their names and links
Compound Document by Reference Framework 1.0 (CDRF)
(this is the one that abstracts out generic material that could apply to any compound document)
WICD Core 1.0
(this is the main document, and allows interoperable combination of XHTML and SVG by reference, ie by linking)
WICD Mobile 1.0
(this adds a few mobile-specific items, such a s how to navigate around with a directional pad ona phone, but no mouse or other pointing device)
WICD Full 1.0
(this is a compatible superset of mobile, for example it uses CSS 2.1 rather than CSS Miobile Profile)
You also asked which organizations are involved in the CDF Working Group. Currently they are:
Helsinki University of Technology
Research in Motion (RIM)
There are some expressions of industry support at