ongoing wrote:

Life Is Complicated

My goodness, even CNN picked up the story about Microsoft trying to retain Rick Jelliffe to update the Wikipedia articles on ODF and OOXML for them, just as the ISO process around OOXML is getting in gear. This raises complicated issues about document formats and transparency and conflict of interest; and there’s at least one elephant in the room.

Editing Wikipedia

This news noise prompted me to check out the relevant Wikipedia guidelines, on Autobiography and Conflict of Interest. I confess to never having read them previously, and now I feel bad, because I’ve edited my own entry a couple of times (contributing a picture is OK they say, but I’ve fixed some broken grammar and minor factual errors, which isn’t).

Worse, I’ve done a lot of editing on the Sun entry. In my defense, when I first went to work it was a disorganized, ungrammatical mess, and I’ve always edited while signed in, so it’s been transparent (if it were up to me, signing in would be a requirement for all editing). So I guess I’ll have to do any further contributing via the Discussion page. Which is OK, since I’ve noticed the editing standard has picked up recently on this page and my services are probably superfluous.

So if Microsoft thinks the articles on OOXML and ODF are inaccurate (haven’t read them in ages, I have no opinion) I think they should have someone smart, reasonable, open-minded, and from Microsoft go pitch in on the discussion page and have the necessary arguments and work out a compromise that gets the NPOV (“Neutral Point Of View”) nod from the community, and based on my experience, the result will be good.

But let’s ascend from the meta level to the document-format issues themselves.

ODF and OOXML

I was really impressed with the collaborative effort at Groklaw to give the OOXML ECMA document a thorough going-over. The objections document is interesting; valuable work, but I don’t think they turned up much that wasn’t already known.

Having said that, I still think OOXML is totally bogus; ECMA shouldn’t have gone near it and neither should ISO. The world does not need two ways to say “This paragraph is in 12-point Arial with 1.2em leading and ragged-right justification”. As I argued in 2005, if you want to capture MS-Office-specific semantics (not a bad thing in principle) the right way to do it is a namespaced layer on top of ODF.

The Elephant in the Room

[Disclosure: Rick Jelliffe has been a colleague and personal friend for at least fifteen years.] I’m a little irritated at Rick just at the moment; he’s been writing regularly over at his (excellent) O’Reilly blog about ODF and OOXML, and is resolutely ignoring the elephant in the room: the reasons that ODF and OOXML exist, and the motivations behind standardizing them. This is weird because Rick’s been doing publishing technology for a living for decades and knows these issues as well as anyone in the world. Rick’s opinion matters, because he is an “invited expert” (non-voting) member of ISO SC34, the committee that recently approved ODF and will soon be deciding whether to approve OOXML.

Let’s be blunt: ODF was standardized for both idealistic and commercial reasons. Both are easy to understand: Idealists want information to be as free as its creator wants to make it, long-lived, and re-usable. Commercially, ODF is a straightforward attempt to crack open the Microsoft lock on the business desktop and allow office-suite competition to start happening. Wait, that’s kind of idealistic too, if you believe in the benefits of free markets.

OOXML was standardized defensively because Microsoft was worried that the standardization of ODF might achieve its commercial goals, and Microsoft’s lock on the office-suite market is worth some eight billion dollars of monopoly profits (as in $8B on $11B of revenue; jeepers!) each fiscal year.

You might be able to conduct an cool-headed objective dialogue about the relative technical merits of these formats without considering the issues of freedom on the one hand and billions of dollars of commercial impact on the other, but I can’t.

What do you think about all this, Rick?

[Disclosure/Historical footnote: Those with long memories might suggest a parallel between Rick’s position and mine when in 1997, I was sitting on the XML Working Group and co-editing the spec, on a pro bono basis as an indie consultant. Netscape hired me to represent their interests, and when I announced this, controversy ensued. Which is a nice way of saying that Microsoft went berserk; tried unsuccessfully to get me fired as co-editor, and then launched a vicious, deeply personal extended attack in which they tried to destroy my career and took lethal action against a small struggling company because my wife worked there. It was a sideshow of a sideshow of the great campaign to bury Netscape and I’m sure the executives have forgotten; but I haven’t. Anyhow, I thought I had to point that out first before somebody else dredged it up, but I totally don’t think Rick’s status played in this story and I’m also 100% confident of his integrity.]

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January 5, 2007

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