ODF Alliance – Who, What, Where (and Why)

Here are the details on the new ODF Alliance - who's a member, what it means, and whether its likely to succeed or fail.

Earlier today, I posted a brief entry on the news that 36 Companies, universities and organizations had announced the formation of the ODF Alliance . The news was introduced with a concerted PR push that involved advance interviews with many of the reporters that have been following the ODF saga (see my earlier post for links), as well as an editorial by Sun Microsystems Chairman and CEO Scott NcNealy that ran in today’s Wall Street Journal

As is usual, the first press reports (like my first blog entry) have been brief and high level. In this post, I’ll dig deeper and look at things in greater detail from a variety of angles intended to explore why the Alliance was formed and by whom, what it will try and achieve, and how likely it will be to succeed in that pursuit.

First of all, what is the ODF Alliance really all about, in the context of the ongoing effort by one group of vendors to displace Microsoft as the virtual owner of office productivity software?

The ODF Alliance was first proposed by IBM at a meeting of key players and others held at an IBM facility in Armonk on November 4 of last year (you can read more on what transpired at that meeting here and here). Following that meeting, little was said in public regarding whether or when such a group would be formed.

The news blackout ended at Midnight EST last night, with the announcement that the ODF Alliance would be formed under the wing of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), an organization that has hosted other initiatives in the past that permit participation by non-members as well as SIIA members. According to Ken Wasch, SIIA’s president (with whom I spoke this morning), SIIA has been involved in open standards and open formats for more than a decade, to the point of these concerns being “part of our DNA,” making SIIA a logical and sympatico host for the new initiative.

As to scope, the principal thing to note is that the new group is focused on government adoption of ODF â�“ notwithstanding the fact that there is only one government member – the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for the City of Vienna – so far. (According to a two page backgrounder available to the press, “government entities” are eligible to become members, although the new ODF Alliance Website speaks only of “organizations” applying, a discrepancy that I expect will be cleared up.) As stated in the press release announcing the launch:

“With a broad cross section of support, the ODF Alliance will work to enable governments around the world to have greater control over and direct management of their documents, now and forever,” said Ken Wasch, President of the Software & Information Industry Association, a leading member of the Alliance and the principal trade association of the software and digital content industry. “There’s no doubt that the momentum of ODF is gaining traction worldwide as more people every day are discovering that it’s a better way to preserve and access documents.” So – the question naturally arises why it is that an organization, more than half of whose members are associations, libraries and NGOs, would be so interested in working to foster government adoption of a document format?

The answer is twofold. For some members (e.g., the consumer groups), government adoption is an end unto itself, due to the importance of perpetual and accessible archiving of public records. But to other members, government adoption is as much or more a tactical objective with the ultimate goal of pervasive support of ODF throughout society.

Why begin with the government? To paraphrase Willy Sutton (who famously answered, when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is”) simply because this is where the current opportunity lies to establish a critical mass of large customers for ODF â�“ something that the Alliance members would not constitute among themselves. Only if enough customers require ODF support in their office software procurement will there be sufficient incentive for office application vendors (and other ISVs) to spend their time and resources in accessing this new market opportunity.

Given that even a very small state like Massachusetts has an IT budget and IT staffing equal to a Fortune 200 company, it doesn’t take many customer wins like this to create a market that begins to command attention. And, since every government faces the same archival challenges, capturing a first customer in the government space can lead to the falling of many, many other dominoes, at the state, municipal, and federal agency levels â�“ both in the U.S. and abroad.

The first domino in that long line, of course, is Massachusetts � but the road to ODF adoption there has been sufficiently rocky that periodic shows of force and determination are vital to maintaining ODF momentum in general, and to reassure State CIOs in particular that ODF is a safe option, in the wake of the resignation of Massachusetts State CIO Peter Quinn late last year.

Will the Alliance be sufficient to swing the cat in this regard? During my call with Ken Wasch (and David LeDuc, SIIA Director of Public Policy) this morning, I asked for further details in this regard. One indicator they mentioned is that by 9:00 AM today at least six new organizations (in the Netherlands, France and Germany) had applied for membership, further substantiating the strong European interest in ODF adoption that was already evident in the founding member list. All of which is hardly surprising, given Europe’s interest in open standards and open source, the impending adoption of ODF by global standards group ISO, and Microsoft’s continuing antitrust woes in the EU, notwithstanding its submission of its XML Reference Schema to Ecma, a European standards organization.

I also asked Ken Wasch whether the new organization would be able to provide reassurance to State CIOs, and Wasch replied that he “would be surprised if several other states do not announce adoption of ODF by year’s end,” with an equal number of adoptions announced abroad as well.

That, of course, remains to be seen, but the proposed activities of the ODF Alliance will provide useful support that those who wish to implement ODF at the municipal, state and government level can draw upon. The Alliance will be directly involved in educating legislatures through its own initiatives. Those activities will include the creation of white papers, case studies, roadmaps and other data and information that make the case for ODF adoption.

In other words, unlike Peter Quinn, the next state CIO that wishes to walk down this road will have a credible, informed ally whose self-appointed role is to stand shoulder to shoulder in making the case that good government policy means support of the ODF open format standard.

One important element in creating that sort of credibility will derive from the size and composition of the Alliance membership, and it is therefore instructive to take a closer look at the founding membership, by category (the full list can be found at the “About” page of the Alliance Website). The categories that I identify, and the members within them, are as follows:

– Known ODF proponents: IBM, Sun, Novell

– New companies of significance not previously highly identified with ODF: EDS, EMC, Oracle, Red Hat (there are smaller companies as well, from both the U.S. and abroad)

– Fence straddlers: Corel

– Involved associations: Friends of OpenDocument, OpenOffice.org, OpenDocument Fellowship, OpenDocument Foundation, and others

– Other associations: The Association of Open Source Suppliers and Vendors in Denmark, Center for Development of Advanced Computing, Software and Information Industry Association (which is also the umbrella organization under which the Alliance has been organized), and others

– Massachusetts technology associations: Massachusetts High Technology Council, Massachusetts Network Communications Council

– Libraries, Universities and other end users: American Library Association, Indian Institute of Technology and others

As is always the case, such a list is notable not only for who appears, but also for who does not. For example, while two of the principal trade associations in Massachusetts have come out in support of ODF, the third (and largest), the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council continues to support open format standards in general, but not a particular format (ODF or the Microsoft XML Reference Schema).

Similarly, on the corporate side, it is interesting to note which companies have already joined as members that are not office productivitiy suite vendors themselves. In this category, Red Hat, Oracle, EDS, and EMC provide intriguing examples, leading to provocative questions regarding where OSF fits into their strategic plans. In the browser category, Opera Software, a Norwegian company, is listed as a member, while Google (at least as yet) is not, even though it attended the ODF Summit in Armonk � leading to even more interesting questions regarding strategic intent.

In the services sector, Optaros, Inc., provides an intriguing example. Here is an extract from Optaros VP for Open Source Development Strategy (and former Microsoft employee) Steve Walli’s blog on why Optaros opted in:

Optaros is an inaugural member of the newly formed ODF Alliance. We joined the ODF Alliance because as an open source and standards centric systems integrator and consulting services company we’re finding our government and enterprise customers are interested in ODF. They want to have choice of vendors for their desktop office suites, and to regain control of their document formats in a world where their documents are increasingly created, published and managed electronically.

The ODF Alliance mission is to educate policy makers, IT administrators, and the public on the benefits of ODF with respect to such choice and control. We support the mission and would like to contribute to it with use cases and our experience with ODF and the use of standards and open source software.

There are many companies and associations from around the world listed at the Alliance Website with which you may be unfamiliar. A few minutes clicking through the member links provides an intriguing first look into the kind of ecosystem of software and services that is beginning to coalesce around the ODF opportunity.

Rather than continue for too long at this point, I’ll close and pick this story up again in a day or two, as I expect that new information and reactions will continue to become available. Before doing so, though, I’ll include a quote from Scott McNealy’s Op/Ed in the Journal, which follows a line of attack that might be summarized as “All Data to the People!”

If this standard is to become a reality, we must insist on it. In the U.S., Massachusetts has been leading the way with a mandate that all software purchased by the commonwealth comply with ODF. Globally, 13 nations are considering adopting it. The reason is simple. The data belongs to the people, not to the software vendor that created the file format.

Of course, while it’s hard to argue with McNealy’s closing sentiment, we’re far from there yet. Still, today will mark a major event in the continuing campaign to liberate the documents of today from their lockboxes, in order to ensure their availability tomorrow.

[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]

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