Open Source Business Conference West, Open Standards and Open Source

On Wednesday I moderated a panel at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco. Gavin Clark at The titled his story about the session "Microsoft ignites idea of independent versions of Office" and subtitled it "Rivals Flame Redmond." That's a bit overwrought, but it was an interesting session none the less.

I’m just back from the Open Source Business Conference that ran in San Francisco this week, where I moderated a session on “Open Standards and Open Source.” The panelists were Bob Sutor, IBM’s Vice President of Standards and Open Source, Tim Bray, Sun’s Director of Web Technologies, Jason Matusow, Director of the Microsoft Shared Source Initiative, and Steve Walli, Optaros Vice President of Open Source Development Strategy. A great panel, and representative of the quality of the key note speakers and panelists throughout the conference. I’ll come back to what was said during our session later in this entry, but as a preview, here’s an account from The that’s titled “Microsoft ignites idea of independent versions of Office” and subtitled “Rivals Flame Redmond.” That’s a bit overwrought, but it was an interesting session nonetheless.

If you haven’t been to an OSBC conference, you might want to give it a try. The concept is not to be too big (about 700 people signed up, although it looked like not all were there at any one time), but to still get a good mix of people from all backgrounds. The format (schedule and physical layout) also puts an emphasis on putting people together and getting them talking, and to enable the exchange of lots of good ideas. Overall, it works pretty well.

On the plus side, they pulled a good, diverse crowd � ranging from individual open source community participants to venture capitalists, and everyone in between. The Key Note speakers also covered the gamut from big name vendor officers (like Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz), to respected theoreticians (e.g., Lawrence Lessig, who always puts on a good show), to historical lions (Lotus Notes founder Mitch Kapor) to CEOs of new open source startups (like SugarCRM founder and CEO John Roberts).

Another successful aspect was the “common room,” right sized with tables, displays and perpetual food and drink, and long breaks throughout the day for people to get together and talk. Press coverage was also pretty good. I talked with Elizabeth Montalbano of ComputerWorld and Brian Proffit of, and saw ZDNet’s Dan Farber madly taking notes throughout my session. There were others besides, making for interesting conversations during breaks with those that were reporting on how they were hearing things.

My major criticism is that the panel sessions are extremely short � only 50 minutes � even though there were three tracks to choose from. Certainly in the case of my session, it felt like we left much more on the table than we could have. My choice would be for having two presentations per track in the afternoon instead of three, to allow the panelists and those in attendance to have more of an exchange of ideas.

It would take far too long to summarize the various sessions and keynotes I attended, but here are some highlights from the session that I moderated. By way of context, you should know that while the composition of the panel was formulated with the ODF saga as a background, we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t make the session an OpenDocument Format (ODF) vs. XML Reference Schema slugfest (an agreement I think that Tim Bray later regretted). Regardless, it seems like some in the audience (like The Register’s Gavin Clark) thought that the vendors were mixing it up anyway on at least one or two occasions.

What Clark was focusing on in his article was a contention by Jason Matusow that Microsoft’s submission of the XML Reference Schema to Ecma would lead to other vendors cloning Office (at least at this level of compatibility). Personally, I haven’t met anyone who seriously thinks that this will happen. The rest of the panel shared the same opinion, as recorded by Clark:

Panel member Stephen Walli…challenged the real value of Office XML File Format. Walli said it was unlikely the standards would produce independent alternatives to Microsoft. “A measure of how successful a standard becomes is how many implementations there are… a standard of one is problematic,” Walli said.

Precedent is certainly on Walli’s side. ECMA ratified Microsoft’s Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) and C# programming language several years ago, but since then just one implementation – the open source Project Mono – has emerged.

Bob Sutor…contrasted this with the fact that “a couple of commercial implementations” already exist that use ODF. ODF is employed in OpenOffice and Sun’s StarOffice, while IBM has plans to use ODF in its Workplace Managed Client 2.6 thin client productivity bundle.

However, Jason Matusow…shot back calling it “presumptive” to conclude Office XML File Format’s wouldn’t lead to independent implementations. “There will be competing implementations,” he said, adding the pace of development would exceed expectations.

Matusow said the ECMA standards process is designed to promote growth in competition. “This is not a Microsoft dominated piece [of standards work]. Can multiple implementations come from it? The answer is ‘yes’.”

Well, time will tell. Steve Walli had some further thoughts of his own, which he posted at his blog the next day:

When a market begins to mature, there comes a point when the incumbent vendor begins to over deliver functionality to their customers, faster than the customer can absorb it (and therefore the customer doesn’t want to pay for it). The technology space is mature enough at that point that the best integrated solution is no longer seen as the most valuable solution by the customer, and the technology space can componentize around a set of relevant standards.

Customers want such standards, because they feel it will give them better choice. The incumbent’s competitors are only to happy to define standards to crack open the market away from the incumbent. This is all pretty much straight out of Christensen’s Innovator’s Solution, with some personal observations based on past experience.

This is where open source becomes relevant to the standards process. Around what do the competitors choose to build a standard? I would argue they choose a body of technology around which they have already collaborated for a period of time in the industry. Because the collaboration has been happening, the vendors have existing practise and experience to determine what works or not. The vendor marketing organizations even likely have certain “customers” they can build case studies around, because of various non-vendor participants in the collaborative space�.

And we’re seeing this play out around Microsoft Office and the rise of the Open Document Format (ODF) standard. Microsoft has over delivered to the bulk of their Office customers. The customers are frustrated. And Microsoft’s competitors rallied around the OpenOffice project to act as a base from which to define ODF. The next release of OpenOffice supported ODF.

The interesting thing is the dilemma the incumbent faces. They have to continue to deliver new product releases with new features and functions. That’s what Wall Street rewards them for doing. And the incumbent is even brilliantly creating new innovations in the space and could be working feverishly to deliver them. But the bulk of their customers are over served. They can’t eat the last round of innovations. Why would they want to pay for the next round? Remember, economically, innovation is a supply side activity – customers just want to buy solutions and they don’t want to buy things they don’t use regardless of how innovative they might indeed be�.

Steve has a lot more to say, so you should read his full post, but I found the above particularly prescient given two other articles in the news today. The first one at Ars Technica, has excerpts from an interview with Bill Gates at where he describes the new features that Office 12 will have, and about what the XML Reference Schema are intended to enable:

Office 12 has got more sexy new stuff than any new release we’ve done for ages and ages. […] The thing people will first notice is the new user interface, it lets you get at features in the way that the menu structure was holding you back. […] The second thing they’ll notice is the role of sharing […] SharePoint will become on the server what Office is on the client. You can assume people know the templates in your organizational project, you just pick one of those templates and get people collaborating using that.

I think the final thing and what may be the biggest thing is what we’ve done with extensibility. Office extensibility used to mean that you programmed against the user interface of the application. Now, because of the XML revolution, we put it in the core of the product, […] literally the format of the documents is XML. What that means is that getting the data in and out of these documents and spreadsheets is that you don’t think about the application, you just think about the name range and the scheme. We’ve finally got to the point where people can write solutions in just a few lines of code, moving very complex data in and out of Office applications. That may be the biggest thing, although it’s hundreds of thousands of customization applications, not one single one that’ll show its value.

All of which, I think, provides a pretty good illustration of what Steve is talking about. The second article illustrates the same dilemma from an economic point of view. The following are excerpts from an article at called Office 2007 Pricing, Packaging Detailed by Nate Mook:

With 34 options for customers interested in Office 2007, new server software, and new Client Access Licenses, Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox warns that such complexity will make decisions harder for businesses. This issue may be why Microsoft has announced packaging details much earlier than it did for Office 2003.

“My concern is that Microsoft has introduced too much complexity, making more difficult the arduous purchase decision process. Microsoft is right to get information out earlier, because evaluating an Office purchase will be much harder for businesses this release cycle compared to Office 2003 or XP,” said Wilcox.

Hmmm. Kind of makes open source sound pretty attractive, don’t you think?

I’ll close with that thought, but you’ll notice that the links at the beginning of this entry that are associated with the names of the panelists will take you to their respective blogs. I expect that most or all of the panelists will add their thoughts about OSBC and our panel over the next few days (and that Tim Bray will perhaps offer a bit more than he has so far):

The other [panel I was on], on Open Source and Open Standards, was kind of boring, with Microsoft�s excellent Jason Matusow furiously reframing and recasting, and nobody else getting quite irritated enough to start the polemics, which may have amounted to cheating the audience. Oh, another thing about OSBC: the food is really excellent.

Maybe if we hadn’t been on after an excellent lunch Tim would have felt more feisty.

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

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