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ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)

ODF vs. OOXML:  War of the Words (an eBook)

For some time I've been considering writing a book about what has become a standards war of truly epic proportions.  I refer, of course, to the ongoing, ever expanding, still escalating conflict between ODF and OOXML, a battle that is playing out across five continents and in both the halls of government and the marketplace alike.  And, needless to say, at countless blogs and news sites all the Web over as well.

Arrayed on one side or the other, either in the forefront of battle or behind the scenes, are most of the major IT vendors of our time.  And at the center of the conflict is Microsoft, the most successful software vendor of all time, faced with the first significant challenge ever to ione of its core businesses and profit centers – its flagship Office productivity suite.

The story has other notable features as well:  ODF is the first IT standard to be taken up as a popular cause, and also represents the first "cross over" standards issue that has attracted the broad support of the open source community.  Then there are the societal dimensions: open formats are needed to safeguard our culture and our history from oblivion.  And when implemented in open source software and deployed on Linux-based systems (not to mention One Laptop Per Child computers), the benefits and opportunities of IT become more available to those throughout the third world.

There is little question, I think, that regardless of where and how this saga ends, it will be studied in business schools and by economists for decades to come.  What they will conclude will depend in part upon the materials we leave behind for them to examine.  That's one of the reasons I'm launching this effort now, as a publicly posted eBook in progress, rather than waiting until some indefinite point in the future when the memories of the players in this drama have become colored by the passage of time and the influence of later events.

My hope is that those of you who have played or are now playing a part in the ODF vs. OOXML story will supplement or correct what I'm writing by sharing your facts and insights, either by posting your comments publicly at this blog, or by contacting me privately me via email.  My goal will be to present what happened as completely, accurately and readably as I can, so I hope that those on both sides of the fence will work with me.  In all cases, I will try and fairly incorporate what you offer into the whole.

My second goal is to help those that have come to this story late in the day – halfway through the movie, as it were - learn what happened prior to when you entered the theater.  That way, you'll be better able to put current events into context as they happen, understand the cast of characters more fully as they continue to play their parts, and above all, appreciate the nuances of the still unfolding plot.

So without further ado, here is the first chapter of a book whose total length will be determined by events yet to unfold, whose ultimate print publisher is yet to be found, and which for now bears the working title of:


WAR OF THE WORDS

Chapter 1:  Out of Nowhere

On September 1, 2005, a New York-based writer for the London Financial Times named Richard Waters wrote a brief article, posting it to the Web via FT.com's  San Francisco office.   The seemingly unremarkable subject of the piece was the release of a new draft of a procurement guideline by the Information Technology Division (ITD) of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' procurement of new technology.  Some of the datapoints in the article were wide of the mark (he referred to Massachusetts as "one of the most populous states in the US" for example), but this was fitting for a story that would circle the world for years to come, as often as not unencumbered by facts inconsistent with the spin du jour.

What elevated the story from a space filler in the business section to a hot property was the news that the ITD planned to banish Microsoft's Office software suite from 50,000 government computers.  If the ITD had its way, 28 Executive Agencies would no longer use Word to create documents, Excel to plot spreadsheets, or PowerPoint to craft presentations.  Instead, government employees would be required to use software that saved documents in "open formats" - which Office did not, according to the ITD's definition.  Moreover, Microsoft claimed that it had been taken by surprise by the decision (a claim the ITD later denied); Waters rubbed salt in the wound by describing the event as "one of the most significant setbacks" for Microsoft in the US market.

Only the FT.com site carried the story at first.  But word of the defection of this large Microsoft customer spread quickly via the Internet, in large part because of the abundance of blogs and amateur news sites that focus on technology stories, but also because so many of the people who write for and visit these sites are hostile to Microsoft.  Soon, visitors with strange on-line aliases like SpaceLifeForm, Sammy the Snake and Cybervegan were posting gleeful comments at the expense of the software vendor, and trying to learn more about what "open formats" might be, and why they were so important.

The decision makers in Massachusetts were Peter Quinn, the state's Chief Information Officer (CIO), and his boss, Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss.  There were good reasons why they wanted to convert to software capable of saving documents using open formats. One was so that citizens could exchange documents with the State no matter what software they chose to use.  As things currently stood, someone in Massachusetts would need to invest in a copy of Office before it could download a document electronically from a state government site.

But an even more important motivation arose from the fact that Massachusetts, like governments everywhere, was rapidly moving towards a future where public records in paper form would cease to exist.  Soon, government archives would exclusively comprise documents in electronic form, stored in vast banks of servers or on magnetic media.  After thousands of years, traditional hard copy documents were destined to follow the path earlier taken by musical recordings, which in the course of a hundred years had already passed from wax, to vinyl, to tape, to optical disk media, eventually to slip the surly bonds of discrete physical storage media entirely and be reborn as electronic files.  These files were recorded in formats of their own, with interesting names like Ogg Vorbis, or more prosaic ones, like MP3 (both open formats), as well as the proprietary formats that Apple uses to create its popular iTunes.

Each time one of these new storage formats (physical and then virtual) had came along, the old one became obsolete.  Within a matter of years, new music couldn't be purchased in the old format at all.  Anyone that wanted to upgrade their equipment while preserving their existing investment in the old format needed to keep their old player in good repair, or else laboriously transfer their old albums, song by song, to the new format, losing fidelity in the process.   Once word processors, each using a proprietary format (Word, WordPerfect and so on), replaced typewriters governments, businesses and individuals faced a repeat of the same experience.  Most had already faced at least one such conversion, typically moving from WordPerfect to Microsoft's Office, after the latter product became dominant in the marketplace.

Governments that now wished to digitize the millions of hard copy documents lying in their archives faced a far greater challenge due to the sheer size of the task.  And they also felt a greater responsibility as well.  Simply put, Massachusetts wanted to be sure that in five, ten or a hundred years it would be able to access thoses digitized documents using whatever equipment was then available, rather than having to dust off the equivalent of an eight track tape player – if it could find one.

Waters may have used a bit of hyperbole to inflate the commercial importance of Massachusetts in his Financial Times article, but his calibration of the threat that the Massachusetts decision presented to Microsoft was right on the money.  Indeed, Microsoft was already deploying its considerable resources to take all actions necessary to bring about a reversal of the ITD's decision, if at all possible, and to blunt the market impact of the decision otherwise. 

The reason lay not so much in the potential loss of revenue from this large customer, but in the dramatic increase in credibility that the announcement gave to the importance of open formats.  Microsoft owned more than 90% of the global marketplace for office suite software, and had worked long and hard to achieve that enviable position.  Some 400 million customers used Office, and it wasn't likely that Microsoft would lose them, so long as software utilized "closed" formats controlled by individual vendors.  While that state of affairs continued, most customers would remain trapped  by the billions of documents they had already created.  Opening, converting and resaving those documents using the software of any other vendor would be difficult, time consuming and expensive.  In the words of economists, these customers were safely "locked in."

But now an open format standard was available that promised to liberate users from lock in to Office for life.  And a high-profile customer had announced that it was leaving the pack to adopt it.  For the first time, there was a breach in Microsoft's outer defenses.  In response, the vendor was marshalling all of the forces at its disposal to contain the threat before it could spread.

->Next Chapter:      Products, Innovation and Market Share
In which Microsoft conquers the desktop operating system marketplace through a combination of luck, a willingness to adopt the innovations of others, and aggressive business practices

  <All Chapters>

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ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process) | 32 comments | Create New Account
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ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Ted Swart on Sunday, November 25 2007 @ 07:10 PM CST
What a wonderful opening chapter and what a marvelous idea.  There can be no one better suited than you yourself to create the e-book you envisage.   The proposed record of history in the making must surely be a singular service to humanity. 
May you be blessed with word smithing skills to suit the occasion.

Best wishes,

. . Ted Swart . .
[ # ]
ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: craig on Sunday, November 25 2007 @ 07:43 PM CST
Ah, a truly interactive story . . . as it is being written, its very dissemination will influence and shape the ending itself. (It's my belief that the political and philosophical essence of the ODF make its dominance inevitable, and I suspect MS knows this already.)
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ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 12:12 AM CST

Thank you Mr. Updegrove, for the good idea of documenting the historical process (still going on) around the formats.

 

I have been monitoring as well the process (war??) more or less closely from Europe (Finland). To me, as pointed out by Mr. Updegrove, the major boost for the discussions around the formats has been given the decisions taken in Massachusetts. However, it is important to remember the parallel process was taking place in Europe particularily in EU. The most prominent indication of that has been the famous Valoris report (http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/3439/5585#recommendations), 2003, and the TAC recommendations concerning the Valoris findings. One of the TAC recommendations was to get the ISO standardisation approval for the OASIS OpenOffice.org format.

Best wishes,

 

Markku Oraviita

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Inside information from Malaysia
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 04:49 AM CST
During the ODF OOXML war we also got a lot of inside information from countries that are always ignored by the big and small media, any media actually. A real first for me.

Personally, I consider the Open Malaysia blog an invaluable source of insight. It also allows a view into the kitchen in a Asian country, far removed from the politics of the USA and EU.

http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/

They were the ones who came with the exclusive admission of Bill Hilf that OOXML is indeed intrically linked into the source code of Office07 and sharepoint.
http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/03/day_1_microsoft.html

What got really interesting was when Yusseri raised the issue of OOXML and why didn't Microsoft just work on ODF in collaboration instead of creating a new, bloated standard. Bill's answer was quite surprising, as he clarified that the file format (OOXML) was a part of the software and that OOXML and the software (MS Office) are quite inseparable. Ergo, OOXML is an integral and inseparable part of MS Office. That's why they could not adopt ODF as the file format for subsequent versions of MS Office.

I don't really know if Bill realises this, but he's just illuminated that this whole OOXML, ECMA and ISO standards play is not about standards nor about Microsoft vs IBM but about legitimizing as a standard a specific technology from a single company developed in isolation from the general technology and user community worldwide.

This really was priceless. A followup was posted at http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/04/return_from_red.html

Another good move was when they showed up at a meeting with a print-out of the ECMA 376 standard, all 6000+ pages:
http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/05/putting_6039_pa.html
An earlier version of the picture:
http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/02/do_we_need_two_.html
Which was then again discussed in more "mainstream" media
http://technocrat.net/d/2007/5/22/20305

And finally the inexplainable way that both Malaysia's TC's voted against OOXML, but the country miraculously voted to abstain with comments:
http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/09/ooxml-is-not-ye.html
http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/09/let-market-deci.html

In short, this blog gave me an insight into the way things were done only few blogs could equal. No other media came even in the same ball-park.

Winter
[ # ]
ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 09:30 AM CST
Is "iTunes" a format? Isn't it a piece of software, whereas the format is called AAC?
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ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 10:04 AM CST
Excellent start. I await the next installment with bated monitor. At some point, you might wish to include some background on the origin and history of open formats in general. Back in the day, open formats were a given, so how did we get to proprietary formats? Why were people willing to accept them? and so on.
[ # ]
ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 01:56 PM CST

Don't you think that any such book should be written by someone that's a bit more objective about the subject?

I mean, regardless of whether or not you believe you are right, the fact is your words will always be colored by the fact that you have a financial interest in the oucome of this "war".

 

[ # ]
  • Go Andy, Go - Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 03:49 PM CST
Typo
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 26 2007 @ 03:54 PM CST
Looks good so far.  You're always one of the key places I turn for informative comment on this issue.

Long as it's going to be a book, I suppose it's worth pointing out the little things.
"Soon, visitors with strange on-line aliases like SpaceLifeForm, Sammy the Snake and Cybervegan were posting gleeful comments at the expense of the software vendor, and trying to learn more about what "open formats" might be, and why there were so important."
You want "'they' were so important".  Spellcheckers don't catch homonyms, drat 'em.

Rufus
[ # ]
  • Typo - Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, December 19 2007 @ 10:14 AM CST
ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, November 27 2007 @ 02:15 AM CST
To me the phrase

"recorded in open (and sometimes proprietary) formats of their own with names like "MP3" and "iTunes."

implies mp3 and iTunes are open formats. Perhaps something like

"recorded in open formats like Ogg Vorbis and sometimes proprietary ones like mp3 and the formats used by iTunes."

would be clearer.
[ # ]
ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, November 27 2007 @ 04:40 AM CST
You wrote: "ODF is the first IT to be taken up as a popular cause"
In my opinion not entirely correct, fighting EU CII directive (software patents directive) was fairly popular and precede ODF afaik.
-

[ # ]
Observation on marketing for ms-ooxml
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, November 28 2007 @ 07:57 PM CST
2 weeks before the german vote took place, I observed a note on a marketing campaign for ms-ooxml in my favorite it-news portal.
Later, when some irregularities occured, I took a closer look at that campaign.
It was about firms which claimed what great success ms-ooxml is to their business.

You'll find my whole research in german here: http://forum.ubuntuusers.de/topic/111288/45/ (Posting 1, 7 and 9 on the page from the alias 'user unknown').
To give a short abstract:
Just one of the more than 100 Partners from the campaign had some information, related to ooxml on its website.
The rest seems to be just hot air.

I could translate the text to english, in the quality you see here, if you are interested.
But note - those partners where not involved in the voting process, so it's just a side note for the case.
[ # ]
ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, January 02 2008 @ 09:07 AM CST

Intro:
"... open formats are needed to safeguard our culture and our history from oblivion."

Oblivion is a bit strong. Even if there were no other evidence than electronic files in proprietry formats, some text is recoverable from those. In reality there is also paper, film, artefacts, etc.


"... like Ogg Vorbis, or more prosaic ones, like MP3 (both open formats), as well as the proprietary formats that Apple uses to create its popular iTunes."

Whilst technically open, MP3 is patent-encumbered. Also, why no mention of WMA?


"Each time one of these new storage formats (physical and then virtual) had came along, the old one became obsolete.  Within a matter of years, new music couldn't be purchased in the old format at all.  Anyone that wanted to upgrade their equipment while preserving their existing investment in the old format needed to keep their old player in good repair, or else laboriously transfer their old albums, song by song, to the new format, losing fidelity in the process."

Obsolete is a bit strong. Deprecated, maybe. Vinyl is still going strong amongst DJs, although declining rapidly. Record players still sell in sizeable numbers, mostly to "audiophiles". Cassettes are still for sale too, mainly in the audio-book market.

Some people "laboriously transfer", many just re-purchase in the new format! (Yet others download, and just retain the original format as proof of ownership).

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