On the Art (?) of Disinformation: telling the Big Lie

For a sequel to this blog entry, see: A Tale of Two Press Releases: Big Lies and Objective Journalism

This blog entry is a rarity for me: an exegesis on the deliberate disinformation spread by a single vendor.  I generally avoid a piece like this for two reasons: first, every vendor has its own PR agenda, with the differences being a matter of degree between the egregious and the merely disingenuous.  More importantly, there is a risk when focusing on a single vendor of decreasing one's reputation for objectivity, despite the fact that one may certainly focus on the statements of a single source and fairly find them to be both inaccurate and cynical. 

What persuaded me to take up the cudgels in this case was a quote I read earlier this week in eWeek, and then spotted again  Bob Sutor's blog today:

"You can achieve interoperability in a number of ways," said [Microsoft's] Robertson. Among them: joint collaboration agreements, technology licensing and interoperability pacts.

The reason this statement caught my eye was that Scott Edwards (also of Microsoft) had used virtually the exact same words at a NIST workshop that I spoke at a month or so ago, offering such methods as valid alternatives to "open standards."  My reaction then, as now, is that such means can in no way represent equivalent alternatives to open standards, although they might offer an avenue to a single vendor, or to a cadre of vendors, to control a marketplace to their own advantage.  When you hear something once, it can be off-hand remark, but when you hear it twice, it's clear that it's a corporate talking point.  And when it comes from the General Manager for Standards of a dominant vendor, it becomes worrisome.

Still and all, and to be fair, Roberson's statement is accurate in a technical sense, although when used in certain contexts (such as the NIST workshop) it can be misleading to an audience that isn't knowledgeable about standards. 

Contrast the quote above, however, with the following statement by Jason Matusow, Microsoft’s Director of Standard’s Affairs:

There are hundreds of industry-specific XML schemas used right now by industries spanning health care, real estate, insurance, finance and others. ODF is yet another XML-based format in the market….The ODF format is limited to the features and performance of OpenOffice and StarOffice and would not satisfy most of our Microsoft Office customers today.

As I noted yesterday, Jason knows that there are multiple other products that support ODF, such as IBM’s Workplace Managed Client and KDE’s KOffice suite, and that ODF is not just an industry-specific schema.  Which makes it a knowing and deliberate misstatement of fact. Or, as Sun’s Tim Bray more elegantly styled it, “egregious bullshit” (to which he added, “In your dreams, Jason”).

Here’s another example of the same, this time taken from Microsoft’s FAQ on it’s submission of its XML Open to Ecma:

Q. Why is Microsoft offering a new standard, rather than simply supporting the file format for the Open Office product (sometimes called ODF)?

A. Sun submitted the OpenOffice formats to a small committee in the OASIS organization. The record shows that there were almost no material changes to the OpenOffice specification from the time it was submitted to the time it was approved by the working group at OASIS. Sun timed the release of the OpenDocument standard in conjunction with the OpenOffice 2.0 release. The OASIS committee did not focus on the requirements, constraints, and experiences of Microsoft customers.

I debunked that one in detail back on December 13 of last year.  Every characterization, and most of the facts, are untrue. 

And then, of course, there is the comment letter submitted by Microsoft’s Alan Yates to the Massachusetts Information Technology Division regarding ODF back in August of last year, which included a statement that “every state agency, department, city, county and school district would face enormous document and/or application conversion costs” – a breathtaking and knowingly false statement made clearly for public consumption, given that the ITD’s own plan called for only the Executive Agencies to use ODF compliant software, and for internal purposes only.  And that is only a single example of the mischief afoot in this letter.

All of these statements share a common characteristic:  each is a blatant misstatement of fact, and it is that which I find to be so offensive.  True, there isn’t a vendor alive that isn’t guilty of spin, and spin has a heritage that goes back to time immemorial.  But we generally recognize spin for what it is when we read it, and can discount the exaggerations accordingly.  The Big Lie (which is what each of these statement is) has a more shameful geneology, however, and a more insidious and cynical intent. 

The secret of the Big Lie, according to one definition, is to tell:

[A] lie so “colossal” that no one would believe anyone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. The first documented use of the phrase “big lie” is in the corresponding passage: “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility.”

The offense of the Big Lie on the personal level is its assumption that, “I can lie to you and you won’t catch me.”  Taken to the marketplace, and included in letters to government agencies, the effect is pernicious.  As a result, exposing the Big Lies is both important and necessary – and hence the reason for blog entries such as this.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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Comments (8)

  1. In the interest of objectivity perhaps Mr Updegrove should disclose his relationships to Sun, other vendors, OASIS and any other standards bodies.  Seems like someone may be vested in “open standards.”  I enjoy your blog Mr Updegrove, but please keep it real.  Peace.

    • “In the interest of objectivity perhaps Mr Updegrove should disclose his
      relationships to Sun, other vendors, OASIS and any other standards
      bodies.”  – How it wil influence his analysis of MS propaganda?
      ” Seems like someone may be vested in “open standards.”  – like who? May be communists?
      enjoy your blog Mr Updegrove, but please keep it real.  Peace.” – “I’m troll”

    • Your request for disclosure of Mr Updegrove’s bias does not cloud the point at hand: M$ did and does lie about ODF and if you kept following the coverage on Massachusetts on Groklaw you would see that this is fact. It’s also quite embarassing to see M$ squirm and come up with totally irrelevant arguments like the millions of M$ documents in use today. Since Massachusetts does NOT ask for any conversion of those documents but only for a new format in the future that’s a completely moot point.

    • Certainly disclosing possible conflicts of interest is important.   I don’t think that I’ve hiddend them in any way here, however.  At the to of this page, it says that my firm “is an internationally recognized leader in creating and representing the consortia that create and promote standards and open source software,” and that link will take you to a list of the many consortia I’ve represented, one of which is OASIS (something I disclose every time I’m interviewed).  If you go to the Metalibrary, you’ll see that two years ago Sun gave me a grant to create the Metalibrary (that’s my only relationship to Sun, by the way).  But adding that to each of the 92 blog entries I’ve done on ODF would get a bit tiresome, both for me and the reader. 

    • >>”In the interest of objectivity perhaps Mr Updegrove should disclose his
      relationships to Sun, other vendors, OASIS and any other standards
      bodies.  Seems like someone may be vested in “open standards.”  I
      enjoy your blog Mr Updegrove, but please keep it real.  Peace.”

      Certainly Mr. Updegrove’s history is open to anyone who wishes to trace his personal history in regards to posts on his blog.  However, it does occur to me that perhaps those who wish for that history to be more prominently placed will take the initiative and lead by example.  After all, the root of the “big lie” is simply the omission of critical facts, such as the reason you might feel the need to point out that Mr. Updegrove has roots in the ODF community, a fact obvious to any who might question his leanings.

      scott_R – a satisfied user of OpenOffice, Linux, and other F/OSS software, and someone who is tired of hearing MS whine about how badly the rest of the IT world treats them

  2. I’m particularly interested in Microsoft’s chorus of “MSOffice features that ODF doesn’t support.”

    The reason is that they never cite any examples.  Given the history of ODF and the hard work from so many experts addressed to that very point and given that Microsoft has a quite capable competitive analysis team, I’m seriously wondering if they have even found any.

    Maybe they’re at work right now designing a few into Office 12, just to be on the safe side.

    • The ODF standard lacks the ability to export Microsoft-native binary proprietary file formats.

  3. Is this another big lie?

    Microsoft argues it has scrupulously obeyed the law all along and said its decisions to compete with Adobe were “guided by a principled commitment to preserve healthy competition.”

    (excerpted from Reuters article on EU and Vista)


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