The Standards Blog

The Mass. OOXML Announcement: What the Scribes Say

OpenDocument and OOXML
As you can imagine, yesterday's news that the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) may endorse Microsoft's OOXML (now Ecma 376) spread like wild fire among the journalists that have been covering the ODF/OOXML competition. As of nightfall the same day, a Google News search turned up 59 articles (many of which were reprints of the same, syndicated text). As many of these are short pieces that add only a paragraph or two of new material on top of the usual stack of text or factual background pulled from prior stories, I've selected and linked to a few of the more informative, interesting and controversial ones and pasted excerpts below. Not surprisingly, they are from journalists that have been following the ODF/OOXML story from the beginning, or not long thereafter, who could quickly round up the usual suspects and pull a quote or two for context.   Let's start with Andy Oram, from O'Reilly's OnLamp.com, who saw the Massachusetts decision as a blow, but not one to be taken lying down. He wrote a piece called How a standard can kill a standard that reads in part as follows:  
As the U.S. Independence Day approaches, we can honor the shot heard around the world when the IT department of the state of Massachusetts declared a couple years ago they would adopt the Open Document Format….The standards process has clearly been turned against standards….If you live in Massachusetts, read Updegrove’s blog and the Massachusetts draft, and let the state know what you think by July 20. 
 

True to his own advice, he's already sent his comments to the ITD, urging them to reverse their decision. You can read Andy's input here.

Martin LaMonica, one of the first mainstream journalists to cover the story, doesn't have much additional information, but does include two quotes of note. The first is from Massachusetts interim CIO Bethann Pepoli:
"The biggest objective is to make as many options as possible open to agencies," Pepoli said. "We feel like this is the best approach to getting all the agencies in the executive department to an XML-based document format--that's pretty much the motivator." 
And the second is a (not surprisingly) critical assessment by one of the most vocal opponents of OOXML:
Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, noted that the Massachusetts draft policy characterizes Open XML as a format best for backward compatibility with Microsoft Office documents.
 
"We completely agree: ooXML looks backward, while ODF is an international ISO standard, and is forward looking. The public understands this, too, as nearly 15,000 people opposing ooXML have signed an online petition circulated by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. We look forward to seeing the public discussion in the Commonwealth," Sutor said in a statement.
Meanwhile, David Gardner, at InformationWeek, included this quote from a long-time OOXML proponent:
The move by the ITD was hailed by the Initiative for Software Group, an industry association that supports Microsoft's stance in the issue. In a statement, the association's Executive Director Melanie Wyne said: "We are encouraged by today's positive developments in Massachusetts. They signal in our minds acceptance of an argument we've long advocated -- standards used by governments to improve IT for citizens and agencies should remain technologically neutral, and be flexible. Massachusetts' new policy looks to be stepping in this direction."
Peter Galli, at eWeek, is another long-term reporter on the story. He collected this quote from another staunch Microsoft industry supporter (OOXML sources, perhaps predictabley, seemed to be much more available than the ODF ones):
Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Computing Technology Industry Association's Washington-based Initiative for Software Choice, which has long lobbied to have both formats recognized, said she was encouraged by the developments in Massachusetts.   "They signal in our minds acceptance of an argument we've long advocated—standards used by governments to improve IT for citizens and agencies should remain technologically neutral and be flexible," she said.
Peter also included an interesting quote from Jonathan Zuck, the president of ACT (Association for Competitive Technology). ACT has been an early and consistent supporter of Microsoft in the ODF/OOXML debate, and I interviewed him (along with most of the other major players at that time) way back in the fall of 2005. The quote in Peter's article heads in a direction somewhat divorced from either ODF or OOXML:
"The policy limits the commonwealth's choices to 'open standards,' when the goals could be achieved with merely 'open formats.' While small firms are often willing to open up their formats and technologies, they often do not have the political clout to move their formats through an open standards body the way IBM, Sun, and Microsoft have done. Yet these small firm technologies may better meet the needs of the commonwealth and individual agencies," Zuck said. "We can only hope that the policy continues to evolve in the coming months toward a truly goals-based policy that gives the commonwealth's CIOs the flexibility they need."
I don't agree with Jonathan, though, when he argues against the ETRM's "rigid definition of open standards." Small firms may be frustrated with the pace of standards organizations, but customers will be left unprotected if a small firm goes under and no one is interested in maintaining its "open format." You need a standards organization to do that, as well as the type of broad and appealing market opportunity that tempts multiple vendors to exploit it, in order for long term assurance.  Even leaving all this aside, the ETRM is no longer exactly using what one could call a "rigid definition of open standards" (on this, see Pamela Jones's piece, linked to below).
 
Scott Fulton has also been following the story for BetaNews for quite some time, and long enough to pull one of my quotes from way back in 2005 to juxtapose against my entry of yesterday (although he misunderstood my point). Scott's conclusion was that the Massachusetts move could be "the most symbolic victory for Microsoft to date" in the format war. Elizabeth Montalbano, who has been covering the story for just as long for IDG News Service, though, called it just a "small victory" for Microsoft.
 
By far and away the most gloomy assessment came from Joab Jackson, of GCN.com, who was unusually primed for the news, having posted a long and carefully researched story just Monday morning comparing and contrasting the two specifications. That story is called Squaring Off, and is worth a read. Joab's take was that there is less separating the two standards than meets the eye – not that this in any way lowers the stakes:
Even in a field known for hype and rhetoric, the debate between proponents of ODF and OOXML is heated, despite — or maybe because of — the minimal differences between them. “When it comes to issues of long preservation, there is not much of a difference,” said Laurent Lachal, senior analyst in charge of open-source research at Ovum.
Perhaps not surprisingly and as a result, Joab's conclusion in the short article he posted after the Massachusetts news became public was blunt:
 
Outside the state offices, of course, the decision to include OOXML is purely symbolic. But like anything symbolic, it resonates because it is representative. What played out in Massachusetts is likely to be played out elsewhere in much the same fashion.
 
So, we might as well be the first to point it out. In battle between open standard office documents, the war is over: Microsoft won; ODF lost. In a few short years, ODF will be little more than a footnote, much as Netscape is today.
 
Why? Just dumb inertia.
Bloggers have been a bit slower to respond, perhaps having a bit more difficulty fitting fast breaking news into their day jobs. So far, Bob Sutor is keeping to his pledge in a blog entry dated Monday morning to actually take a vacation. Similarly, I see nothing yet from Stephe Walli, Stephen O'Grady, Sam Hiser, Rob Weir, or Simon Phipps all of whom (among many others), I'm sure, will weigh in sometime soon. Hopefully some of them (as well as anyone else that wants to) will add a trackback below when they do.
 
Updated:  Pamela Jones weighed in early this morning.  Pamela has done huge yeoman service over the last two years promoting ODF, including setting up Wiki pages to chronicle OOXML issues.  But it sounds like she's feeling pretty weighed down by the Massachusetts turnabout.  Her piece is noteworthy for focusing on the ITD's restated standards for choosing a standard as contained in the new draft ETRM, and concluding that OOXML still does not.  You can find her commentary here.
 
Updated:  Steven Vaughn-Nichols yesterday filed a piece echoing my concerns, called Microsoft, Newspeak and OpenXML. 

For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

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Comments

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It 's not all doom and gloom. The current problem is that many people believe that since OOXML has been fast-tracked to ISO, it will become an ISO standard, and since it's inevitable, why not just adopt it now and gain the benefits of the existing software they already have? After all, it's a lot less political to choose the status quo than to change, even if it's an improvement. And since it's fasttracked, it must be "good enough anyway", right? So why make a fuss.

It's hard to argue against this. You can try to say that OOXML isn't guaranteed to be a standard, but since society views cynicism as being wisely realist and having idealistic principles as foolish dreaming, it's a hard argument to make (especially in government). With the "but it's for the future" argument neutralized as being unrealistic, you're left with the "we have to pay the price now" and the "we won't get the benefits, someone else will get the credit" arguments.

Fortunately, OOXML isn't an ISO standard. If it fails to pass (and especially if the arguments against it are strong), a few things happen: (1) OOXML is shown to be unsuitable, especially to governments who demand ISO standards (2) the cynics will quiet (3) the whole ODF and OOXML are the same argument disappears (4) OOXML supporters will shift to the defensive (5) It's easier for governments who chose OOXML to back off without losing face (e.g. "We only approved it because it was going to be ISO, but since it isn't, we back off.")

So a battle is lost, but that mustn't discourage us or cause us to give up since the war might yet be won. We just need to persist, because to do otherwise is to abandon our responsibilities to our future selves and our children (e.g. http://yama.blogsome.com/2007/07/04/four-legs-good-two-legs-bad/).