ODF vs. OOXML on the Eve of the BRM

If you're reading this blog entry, you've probably been following the battle between ODF and OOXML.  If so, you may be thinking of that conflict as a classic standards war, but in fact, it goes much deeper than that label would suggest.  What is happening between the proponents of ODF and OOXML is only a skirmish in a bigger battle that involves a fundamental reordering of  forces, ideologies, stakeholders, and economics at the interface of  society and information technology. 

Today, open source software is challenging proprietary models, hundreds of millions of people in emerging societies are choosing their first computer platforms from a range of alternatives, major vendors are converting from product to service strategies, and software as a service is finally coming into its own - to mention only a few of the many forces that are transforming the realities that ruled the IT marketplace for decades.  When the dust settles, the alignments and identities of the Great Powers of the IT world will be as different as were the Great Powers of the world at the end of the First World War.

It is in this light that the ODF vs. OOXML struggle should really be seen, and for this reason I've dedicated the latest issue of Standards Today  to exploring these added dimensions on the eve of the OOXML Ballot Resolution Meeting that will begin on February 25 in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the Feature Article to this issue, I make the deepest dive, reviewing how the marketplace found a single-vendor controlled "standard platform" to be an acceptable tradeoff during the early days of the desktop, and also the cost/benefit ratio has now reversed, as more alternatives, more sophisticated end-users, more effective open standards, and the spread of open source.  The article ends with this summary:

V     Conclusions

The unexpected success of ODF in the marketplace is a symptom of fundamental shifts in a maturing IT ecosystem, characterized by increasingly sophisticated and demanding end users, resurgent competition, new enabling technologies, and other forces that are largely beyond Microsoft’s control.

History teaches that monopolies in the marketplace, like empires in the broader world, are rarely sustainable over long periods of time, and ultimately fall victim to both external attack and internal weaknesses. The degree to which Microsoft’s competitors have embraced, and many Microsoft customers and national governments alike have resonated, with ODF are strong indications that the foundations upon which Microsoft’s historical dominance has been based may at last be weakening.

ODF is not in itself likely to topple Microsoft from its enviable throne. But the very public example of ODF, as played out in public view, has brought new attention to the value that true competition in the marketplace can offer, as well as to the fact that life without a single "de facto" standard might be not only conceivable, but desirable. When conjoined with the equally forceful currents of open source software and SaaS, Microsoft will be likely to face increasingly frequent challenges in the future from ever more determined competitors, similar to that posed by ODF.

The ODF experience therefore offers not only a successful model upon which Microsoft’s competitors will likely base other strategic initiatives in the future, but also a business case that will be studied in business schools, and by economists, for many years to come.

How that conflict plays out will determine who will be the Great Powers of the IT industry for the next twenty years.

For those of you that want to dig deeper, the complete issue can be found here, and the index, with links to individual articles is below.  Free subscriptions are available here.

On February 25, 120 delegates from 40 countries will arrive in Geneva, Switzerland to review the proposed resolution of 3,522 comments on OOXML. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
EDITORIAL:                                THE OVERWHELMING OF ISO/IEC JTC1
At the end of March, the 6,000 page OOXML specification will complete its "Fast Track" course through ISO/IEC JTC1. Whatever the result, its clear that a process designed to review non-controversial 20 page specifications outside of public view is in need of a serious overhaul if it is to remain useful and relevant to the ITC industry. How that conflict plays out will determine who will be the Great Powers of the IT industry for the next twenty years. 

Superficially, the conflict between ODF and OOXML would seem to be a classic, if more than usually hard-fought standards war. In fact, it’s simply a skirmish in a far broader conflict being played out across an IT landscape that is undergoing fundamental change. 
The progress of ODF in the marketplace has all the prerequisites for a great book: billions of dollars at stake, global maneuvering by some of the world’s most powerful companies, legions of lobbyists, and more. You can find the first chapter of that book in this issue, and more at the Standards Blog. 
The Internet and the Web hit the bricks and mortar world like a meteor, annihilating some existing business models and allowing new ones to furiously evolve to take their place. Today, all of the ecological business niches seem to be populated by new dominant species with names like eBay, eTrade and, of course, that Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Internet: Google. Or perhaps not. T. Rex, it seems, is hatching a challenger to that Brontosaurus of the Virtual world, the Wikipedia.  
In February of 2005, ConsortiumInfo.org launched the Standards MetaLibrary, describing it as " the only on-line research resource focusing exclusively on standards and standard setting." Now, the MetaLibrary has been completely redesigned, and new material is being added aggressively.


For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

sign up for a free subscription to Standards Today today!

Comments (11)

  1. Your article " THE OVERWHELMING OF ISO/IEC JTC1" is pretty misleading in the section

    <blockquote>While the proposed dispositions have been released in batches beginning in December, someone just commencing the chore of wading through them on January 14th would need to understand, evaluate and form an opinion on over a hundred comments, and more than half that many pages, every day of the week between now and February 25th. Given that each comment disposition previously released was packaged in its own, separate PDF file, and posted to a Web site in batches of 500 or more at a time, that is presumably what many delegates will in fact need to do.</blockquote>

    For a start, most comments are duplicates. There are only 750 to about 1000 unique comments, depending on how you count them.

    Second, more than 80% of comments have been agreed to by the editor. These range from typos to factoring out VML. Most of them just can be reviewed by scanning, when they are not your baby.

    Third, a reviewer for a national body will be primarily interested in the comments from that body. In most cases, the NBs comments are much less than 100 comments.

    Fourth, within each National Body, different members of the committees (and delegations) have different interests and strengths, so of course there is a division of labour.  There will be touchstone issues for each reviewer that they will often check thoroughly, and flip through the responses to issues that don’t interest them or which are out of their expertise. There will also be some die-hard reviewers who will want to read all the responses, but they would not be the majority, for a large standard.

    Where did you get the idea that every person needs to understand every part of every response? That is not the way things work in large standards, it is committee work.  Why don’t you join an international standards committee, so you can enhance your excellent prose with experience? I am sure everyone would benefit.

    Rick Jelliffe

  2. Rick,

    Where did you get the idea that every person needs to understand every part of every response? That is not the way things work in large standards, it is committee work.  Why don’t you join an international standards committee, so you can enhance your excellent prose with experience? I am sure everyone would benefit.

    Where did you get the idea that this was an ordinary standards process?  Of course, it isn’t, for a number of reasons that I’ll click through below.  First and foremost is the issue of trust, and past practice to date, not to mention the degree of disingenuity (to perhaps coin a word) that can go into proposing a single "disposition." And because the BRM addresses only technical issues,  there are the end game moves that have to be calculated (e.g., will Microsoft actually implement this disposition?  What’s the effect of deprecating this feature?  What happens if there’s an extension here?) that can make an individual disposition very complex to consider, instead of simply taking its good intentions on faith.

    Most comments are duplicates:  Yes, but I am simply giving Ecma the benefit of their own PR, talking about how many comments that they have addressed.  Then, of course, there is the trust issue noted  Sad to say, I think that after the extremely poor job that Ecma did preparing OOXML for ISO review, improvement in their quality control process remains to be proven.  And then, to be fair, it is a large job, and mistakes might be made.  And even after excluding duplicates, it’s still a huge job – as you would know from your own experience, where a tiny fraction of this number of changes would be involved, and likely with more time to review them. 

    Not your baby:  Sorry, but I’m not buying that one this time around, either.  With a 6,000 page specification to review, many NBs are going to be interested in – and agree with – what other people spotted that they didn’t.   Most comments are not country-specific, and therefore while they might originate in one NB, most will  not reflect anything unique to that NB’s national interest.  And then, as you also know, there’s the question of collateral damage – you have to be sure that the proposed disposition doesn’t have an effect that you don’t like.  As a result, I think that it would be the exception rather than the rule that an NB would have no interest in any of the objections of any other NB – in many cases, I expect that they will have an active interest in one to a few of the comments of most other NBs that offered them.

    Division of labor:
      Indeed, yes, there would be division of labor – in countries with large enough pools of available, interested experts willing to take on the task.  And there are also delegations of one, eh?  How is that one person supposed to participate fully in the BRM if s/he doesn’t understand, at least to some level, all of the comments that are likely to be of interest?  And also, how many knowledgeable format experts do you suppose smaller countries have?   What is true for the US or France would not necessarily be true for a small country.  I expect that there might not be even one format expert in, oh,  let’s say Cote d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Lebanon, Trinidad and Tobago…you get the idea – but perhaps that’s another question of interest.

    After representing over 85 standards organizations for over 20 years and advising clients on game playing in committees throughout all that time, sitting in on committee meetings, writing and reviewing process and IPR policies, advising on litigation arising from process abuse, writing amicus briefs supported by as many as 13 consortia and SDOs at a time with the Circuit Court, FTC and Supreme court, giving testimony to the FTC and DOJ, and much more, I think that I have a pretty good handle on how the games are played in the trenches, thanks.  All in all, I expect I may have a much greater familiarity with those games than someone who has spent most of  their time participating in the plain vanilla variety of non-controversial standard setting.

      –  Andy

    • But it is just a normal standardization process, at its heart. There is a draft, there is a ballot, there is a disposition of comments, there is a ballot resolution meeting, there is a final text (editing instructions), there is final vote. The votes are by national bodies, each of which have their own constitutions, and which almost universally are set up to support the needs of industry (in particular users and manufacturers) with many also providing a forum where interested non-industry stakeholders can have a voice too.

      Jim Melton, editor of SQL, has laid to rest the idea that successful standards cannot be large or have thousands of issues brought up, and he is a very disinterested person. A big draft can have a lot of comments: big deal, that is what the process is designed to flush out.

      What is different is the active campaign of disinformation, the willingness of  people who pride themselves on being independent to become parrots, the willingness to see bribery and corruption despite the lack of any evidence, and a strong desire to maintain the status quo. Some people are so anti-Microsoft that they cannot even see when it is being forced to do the right thing (or make a step towards doing the right thing.)

      The only way we will ever get to a harmonized standard is if all parties come more-or-less willingly. The only way that will happen is if they think they can get enough win/win out of the process. When a party has a reasonable expectation that they will be snowed, they won’t participate. To get to ODF 2.0 (by 2113, say), ODF 1.n and OOXML need to be equal inputs. By opposing OOXML as an ISO standard, you are not promoting ODF, you are promoting the status quo, where MS dominates with the also-rans running around yapping; but you are giving MS a great excuse when the EC asks them "Why isn’t your format a standard like we asked" they can say "We tried and the ODF people prevented it!"  Yesterdays strategies have mostly failed: ODF 1.0 was never enough to fulfill the hopes raised for it, and those ODF boosters who pushed it before it was mature and full-featured, and before it’s implementations were mature enough to succeed would do better to spend their time getting ODF and its implementations mature and ready for harmonization. The only light in the tunnel is that MS is realizing that opening up their specifications through the forum of international standards bodies is increasingly just a cost of doing business, and that if they manage it right they can get valuable QA on their technologies from it (i.e. the world gets a previously missing channel to their developers.)

      How can there ever be any effective harmonization process unless there is an acceptance that each party has legitimate requirements and that each party is the best judge of their own requirements? 

      Rick Jelliffe

      • <blockquote>you are giving MS a great excuse when the EC asks them "Why isn’t your format a standard like we asked" they can say "We tried and the ODF people prevented it!" </blockquote>

        The EC is not going to buy that, apart from their familiarity with Microsofts lock-in behaviour and delay tactics, they already have an investigation against Microsoft to find out if Microsoft has failed to adequately open OOXML, or to take adequate measures to ensure that Office is "sufficiently interoperable" with competing products. Apart from that, they might ask the national bodies who voted against making OOXML an ISO standard, and they’ll probably hear OOXML didn’t meet the requirements an ISO standard is supposed to have.

        <blockquote>How can there ever be any effective harmonization process unless there is an acceptance that each party has legitimate requirements and that each party is the best judge of their own requirements? </blockquote>

        Which parties? At this moment, the focus is at the requirements of vendors and IT-companies who deliver support. However, standards shouldn’t be about the requirements of vendors or IT-companies who deliver support. Especially the IT-companies offering support for standards are the ones benefiting for multiple standards for the same goal, by writing conversion tools and the like.

        Standards should serve to make life easier for the end users, and to save them money. However, at this moment, mainly software-vendors and IT-companies who earn money by converting standards are in the national standard bodies. An effective harmonization process can only be reached if the vendor requirements are set aside and the requirements of the users will have priority.

        Looking at OOXML, the user requirements didn’t have priority. Microsoft states their customers – the end users – want backwards compatibility, but the several old proprietary document formats – like .doc and .xls – are not a part of OOXML, and therefore OOXML isn’t backwards compatible at all – as Microsofts customers wanted. Therefore, the old proprietary MS-Office formats are still not interoperable  with other office suites.

        Also, people ask Microsoft Office uses OOXML, but at the moment, it still doesn’t – it uses MSOOXML, which is not the document format the ISO will vote about at the BRM. No other office suite uses OOXML either.

        So OOXML offers no backwards compatibility, it offers no interoperability between office suites because no office suite can save in OOXML, and it partly duplicates the existing ISO standard for office documents. I can’t see how Microsoft customers can benefit from OOXML; and therefore the only reason they try to receive ISO-approval for OOXML can be the requirements of other IT companies and Microsoft itself.

        Hans Kwint

      • "What is different is the active campaign of disinformation, the willingness of  people who pride themselves on being independent to become parrots, the willingness to see bribery and corruption despite the lack of any evidence, and a strong desire to maintain the status quo. Some people are so anti-Microsoft that they cannot even see when it is being forced to do the right thing (or make a step towards doing the right thing.)"

        I do remember an active campaign of disinformation. But it was not by the ODF proponents.

        Most of the "desinformation" organized by the ODF "camp" ended up in the BRM meeting as very valid concerns about MS OOXML. Almost all of the concerns collected by, eg, Groklaw, are now on the table in the BRM. And most have been admitted by MS as "problematic". Just as they conceded the mathematical errors in the fomula definitions (by Brian Jones).

        Furthermore, the main problem was that MS OOXML should never have been put on the fast track procedure. And that has been admitted by MS too (very halfhartedly, blaming Ecma). Even the "patent promises" and license problems with OOXML have lead to a constant updating of the promise by MS to accomodate at least some of the criticism.

        However, we still do not know for sure where all the disinformation about voting procedures came from that were always favoring voting "yes" for OOXML. Just as there was a lot of completely false information about what constituted "backward compatibility" in OOXML.

        And we also remember MS promising everybody that the standard OOXML would be community controlled. But now we have learned that MS will chair a closed, behind the doors, and hand-picked TC that will have sole "stewardship" over the standard.

        And  the name "OOXML" is deprecated, MS has switched to the completely moronic name "Open XML".

        Also according to MS, we have a deluge of "Implementations" of OOXML. Most of them nothing more than converters and the non-MS implementations are very far from any sort of useful fidelity wrt Office2007 OOXML.

        In short, the common feeling is very much that MS have gamed the ISO for it’s own profit. This has done an enormous amount of damage to ISO standardization procedures. We will all have to bear the cost of it.


  3. You should probably take a look at the amount of cash that is hurtling around the ‘Information Technology’ industry, and the cases … particularly in US courtrooms … where US judges have directed corporations (and individuals) to do things or make payments which are not in accordance with their business plans.

    The courts are the ‘courts of equity’ … namely, copyright, patent, and anti-trust. Family courts are also courts of equity, but I don’t think they have a significant role here.

    The decisions .,.. or the threatened decisions … of such courts are tending to destroy the prospects for scientific progress in the Western world. For example, if a scientist (or his employer who might be a globally-integrated hardware/software/services corporation) has to be concerned about the possibility that a judge might interfere in the corporation’s business affairs as a consequence of the scientist publishing his work, the corporation won’t let the scientist publish. Well, the work can be published on the corporate Intranet, but not on the external Internet. Management permission is not forthcoming unless and until there is a compelling commercial reason to take the risk.

    NASA are trying to commission a space exploration video game http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7195718.stm . Do you think the proposed contract will require the work product to be open-sourced ? (Hint. The Space Act which set up the framework for the US taxpayer to fund NASA in 1956 or so gives NASA an objective to deliver education. NASA isn’t in the business of selling video games. NASA open-sources all of its software that it can, as a matter of policy).

    What will happen as between Electronic Arts, or Ensemble Studios, or someone that is in the business of selling video games, and NASA, as and when NASA’s scientific progress threatens the commercial profitability of the businesses ? Will a US judge order NASA to stop distributing ? Or not ?

    • There are indeed strong forces today that result in far less research being published than twenty years ago.  The two biggest, in my experience are the fact that much cutting edge research is funded by corporations that don’t want to see it published before any available patents have been filed.  And, sadly, universities have grown wise to the value of patents as well, and are playing the same game, particulalry in the health sciences. 

      On the IT side, you may recall the patent asserted against Web browsers that was brought against Microsoft a few years ago – with one employee, and owned entirely, or in large part, by Berkeley University, as I recall, where the technology was developed.  The W3C files a request for reexamination with the PTO on that one after the tiny company got a judgment for $451 million against Microsoft, and where developers were faced with a big redesign job in order to avoid infringement.

      I’m not aware of the cases that you’re describing, though, and would be intrigued to know which disputes you have in mind, and a little more about what the legal basis for them might be.

        –  Andy

      • It’s mostly a ‘hypothetically’.

        I’m aware of this filing http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/709519/000119312504155723/dex10109.htm where Microsoft ‘forgive’ Sun for past deployments of OpenOffice, but caution them that future deployments may have commercial consequences.

        http://symphony.lotus.com/ is presumably intended to depress the market for standalone office productivity software such as Microsoft Office and IBM Lotus SmartSuite, while growing the market for connected office productivity software such as IBM Lotus Notes … and also driving ISO26300 standardisation. Will Microsoft attempt to block its distribution ? Do you have any idea how ? Or will they lie down and accept that ‘standalone office productivity software’ is like typewriters and VHS videotape decks; sellable for good prices once upon a time, but consigned to history nowadays.

        The SCO-vs-IBM case feels like a commercial attack on scientific progress. Anyone distributing open-source software has to be aware of the possibility that someone funded like SCO were might go to a judge, and the judge might order them to stop. That is akin to the possibility that a judge might order the next Einstein to quit publishing his improvements on Newton’s ideas; or to force Galileo to quit promoting the idea that the earth goes round the sun.

        I don’t think IBM is fussed about the money; it’s a cost of doing business. But the possibility that someone might stop IBM from shipping Linux on System Z, thereby terminating the mainframe market in China, is more than can be tolerated.

        It was noticeable that Symphony was released the day after the EU judgement against Microsoft. And I’m fairly sure there is a lot more ‘commercial weaponry’ deep inside IBM, which will surface only as-and-when conditions are right. A hair-trigger, if you like.

        So what of NASA and their proposed open-source space science and engineering game ? Wide distribution at no charge to excite the young into science-technology-engineering-math careers ? Or blockage by established well-funded commercial interests ?

        Can you launch a Saturn V to the moon nowadays, or does it get shot down in a Florida courtroom ?

      • I think that the cases you cite (Microsoft – Sun and SCO-IBM) both involve infringement allegations, rather than efforts to seek relief from a court, exercising equitable principles, as per your earlier comment.  In each case, the plaintiff is contending that they have already patented the invention or copyrighted the code that the defendant is deploying.

        There are situations where actions are brought because someone is giving something away, but they tend to fall into two categories: either internationally, between governments, where violations of trade treaties are at issue, or antitrust suits. 

        But neither of these would make legal sense in the NASA example.  Theoretically, I suppose, if NASA was to give away an office suite, then a vendor abroad might ask its government to object, but that’s not the case.  And it would be impossible to bring an antitrust action, not only because wouldn’t be gaining anything from releasing its game or be damaging a vendor (the vendor would have to show that it lost revenues because there was one more video game in the market,which would be difficult to impossible to prove), but also, I think, NASA would in any case enjoy sovereign immunity from private suits of this type.

        As to IBM giving away software equivalent to Office: it would be more than usually disingenuous for Microsoft to bring an action against IBM based upon giving something away, given how often it has used the same tactic in the past, most famously in order to defeat Netscape.

        So I guess I’m still where I was in my first reply:  there are serious threats to innovation, but I think most of them will continue to be based on claims of infringement, often of patents that never should have been issued to begin with.

          –  Andy

Comments are closed.