ODF/XML Notes and Reports from All Over (installment IV)

Everybody had a lot to say about Microsoft's announcement last week. Here's a sampling.

As you might expect, the ODF/XML story had a quick break out of the long holiday weekend with something of a blizzard of reaction and counteraction to the rat-a-tat of stories that hit just before the holidays. If you were stuck in holiday traffic between Boston and New York all that time, here’s what you missed: first, Microsoft’s Ecma announcement on Monday, followed by the release of it’s covenant not to sue on Tuesday, and finally the much-criticized Boston Globe-“instigated” investigation into Peter Quinn’s travel authorizations. Needless to say, a number of people have had a lot to say in response.


Where to begin? For flavor, here are some of the articles that have appeared in just ZDnet.com over the last two days:


For starters, Dana Bankenhorn, in a piece titled Massachusetts open source fight becomes partisan connected the dots in Massachusetts into a totally Republicans v. Democrat picture that ultimately ties into presidential and gubernatorial ambitions.


Less speculatively, but still at ZDNet.com, David Berlind got Larry Rosen’s take on the Microsoft covenant not to sue from the open source perspective. Larry pronounced himself “delighted,” saw no issues within the four corners of the covenant, and called for strong participation by open source advocates in the Ecma process to try and ensure that result. David goes on to explore some of the questions that have been raised regarding the covenant, such as whether the patent waiver would apply in the case of a partial, as compared to a full, implementation of the XML Reverence Schemas.


Across the pond, ZDNet.com.UK Ingrid Marson (with a keen eye for expert sources) quoted me extensively in a piece titled Microsoft file standard offers ‘minimum openness’. Ingrid’s focus was the Microsoft covenant not to sue.


Completing the rounds at ZDNet.com, Martin LaMonica concluded that Mass. warms to Microsoft Office standard, quoting Commonwealth Secretary for Finance and Administration Thomas Trimarcho as follows:

The commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft’s progress in creating an open document format. If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats,” the statement said.

Speaking of Trimarcho, let’s turn to what the vendor camp had to say. Earlier today I got a copy of a strongly worded letter that Sun delivered to Secretary Trimarcho over the signature of Sun Director of Standards Carl Cargill (cc’ing Governor Romney) that reads in part as follows:



Recent press reports have suggested that Microsoft’s Office 12 XML-based format would also be an acceptable choice, despite the currently proprietary nature of the product. While Microsoft has promised to eventually submit Office 12 to a standards body, the Commonwealth must act on existing open standards to best serve its future needs for document exchange. Just as an agency would not purchase a product before its actual availability, so too would it be a mistake to rely on a single vendor’s promise to submit a new product to a standards body at some point in the future. The Commonwealth owes no less to its taxpaying citizens….




The Commonwealth‘s process began as an effort to ensure that the documents created by its agencies would be owned by those offices and by its citizens for all eternity, without the need to negotiate or pay for continued access to them again in the future each time a new version of proprietary software is released. This process began as an effort to break away from the lock-in to certain expensive technologies, the costs of which ultimately accrue directly to taxpayers. This process began with a desire to create a level playing field so that innovation in the market would flourish, enabling better delivery of government services.


This process should not end with the acceptance of a promise from those who seek to maintain a costly status quo, which accrues only to one company’s bottom line and denies the citizens of the Commonwealth the value they deserve from their tax dollars.


Only after a specification has been approved by a broadly supported standards body — one that demonstrates acceptable levels of openness by being available to all competing products — should the Commonwealth consider including that open standard as one of its own. This “spectrum of openness” includes the ability of multiple, competing vendors to participate in creating the standard. It also includes the presence of a wide range of developers using the standard, including those from the open source community, who have sufficient rights to produce competing products. These are characteristics that the Commonwealth can only judge at the conclusion of a proposed standards process (e.g. standards body ratification). 

You can read the complete letter at Piper Cole’s Weblog (Piper is Sun’s VP of Global Government & Community Affairs).


Continuing with vendor reaction, IBM VP of Open Standards and Open Source Bob Sutor had much to say at his blog, including the following out-takes:

We know the old situation with the Microsoft XML formats: they created them, they changed them whenever they wanted to do so, and they had a license that was restrictive and prevented GPL implementations. Not so open, and people noticed, particularly in Massachusetts.


What’s the situation with the new covenant not to sue and the plan for ECMA? Let’s look at the five areas for openness in this case:


Development: Microsoft has done all development on the Office XML formats by itself. Will the ECMA work be a rubberstamp or will ECMA members truly have a chance to participate? Will they do so? If the charter of the new technical committee allows no real modifications to what Microsoft has put forth, this fails this part of the openness criteria miserably. The new ECMA technical committee (TC) should have the opportunity to make whatever changes it sees fit. It is the responsibility of those who care and may even want to see some sort of OpenDocument Format/Microsoft XML format convergence to take part and lay the groundwork for that eventuality. But what if this causes product delays? Well, that’s just life in a standards world. HTML changed when it became standardized in the W3C from what Netscape and Microsoft had first implemented. The world is better for it.


Maintenance: Will the ECMA TC make whatever changes it, as a community, thinks to be appropriate beyond the first version? Backward compatibility with what the ECMA TC first standardizes and not necessarily with what it is handed as input is important, but the community can decide to do what it pleases. Again, life in a standards world. Vendors or groups can always implement the ECMA standard in the next version of their software. No single vendor should be allowed to make its own independent changes to the standard, unless this particular standardization effort is a sham. Also, this TC has to be a real joint effort and not just a single vendor making all the decisions. Just with Development, all minutes of all TC meetings should be public. For comparison, all the OASIS OpenDocument Format TC email list entries and minutes are public.


Accession: I suspect it will not be an issue getting a free copy of the spec, but we’ll need to watch this. The ISO usually charges for copies of its specs (with some exceptions), if this effort gets that far. Will we all be able to see the development of the spec in ECMA or will we have to wait until it becomes final there? This is important because developers need to see a spec as it develops so that they can prepare implementations, not to mention debug the spec in progress.


Implementation: Microsoft has made its covenant, but we’ll need to see what others do in ECMA. If the spec ends up being (F)RAND overall, it is not particularly useful for all types of implementation, particularly open source. So whatever Microsoft has or has not done so far, we will need to see what the licensing looks like in ECMA. To be blunt: I don’t think anything other than RF with some simple conditions like narrow defensive termination will be sufficient. Stay vigilant. We also need to see what the copyright license is like, since we have not seen anything about this yet. Microsoft has made progress in the openness direction with its covenant not to sue (and see Andy Updegrove’s latest analysis) but they need to continue that openness trend in ECMA.


Also, and this is really important, by standardizing its formats in ECMA, Microsoft should be giving up the right to include proprietary extensions of the spec when it creates its implementations. Repeat after me: NO PROPRIETARY EXTENSIONS.


Modification by Others: We’ll have to see what the copyright situation is here, as I mentioned above. Also, does the language in Microsoft’s covenant not to sue…mean that you can’t implement a subset of the spec to implement a profile, say, and still avoid difficulty? We don’t know, but we should find out….


In summary, the move last week was interesting, but does not radically change the world. In my opinion, ODF and the applications that support it now and plan to support it are the best bet for an interoperabile future. Indeed, the ECMA action might be viewed as a move to fracture the existing industry standardization, and should be viewed in that light until proven otherwise.

If you’re not worn out yet and missed my blog post from earlier today, check out this quote from Adam Farquhar, previously quoted in Microsoft’s Ecma press release as an XML Reference Schema supporter:



Early in November, Microsoft announced a project to digitize 100,000 rare and out-of-print books from the British Library collection. [For more information, see the NewsBreak at http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb051121-2.shtml.] Farquhar says that that effort is not directly related to the Open XML announcement: “Some people think we are adopting Microsoft formats as our standard for digital preservation. This is not right; we are striving to make sure that content we receive in MS formats will be preserved.” He continued: “What format will we deliver? We deliver a lot of articles and in many formats. We deliver content in PDF, Office Open, ODF, TIFF — whatever format the customer wants.”

One could go on (and on). But, to quote from one authoritative source, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” [Matthew 6, verse 34]




subscribe to the free Consortium Standards Bulletin