Good Enough Standards? No Way

Two of my students (Michael and Søren) did an interesting small project about the “document format war” in december, and we had a good discussion at the exam here this week. They’d interviewed three key actors in the Danish OpenXML/ODF-debate, and presented a very decent, if slightly biased, analysis.

But bias seem to be the menu of the day everywhere in the document debates. Burton Group’s What’s Up, .DOC? ODF, OOXML, and the Revolutionary Implications of XML in Productivity Applications was bashed for being biased.

And of course, there are all the biased bloggers. Take Stephen McGibbon’s IBM’s Director of Strategy comes clean on OpenXML or Rob Weir’s What every engineer knows or Russell Ossendryver’s ISO should kick OOXML off the standards bus. Biased, biased, biased. More biased than ever, if possible. And now also in Danish.

BTW, this made me laugh: Note the Google ads on Russell Ossendryver’s blog. On top is this link, hardly endorsed by Ossendryver, one would imagine …

In the debates about document formats, let’s not forget that most people and organisations still use the old binary documents. And now there may be hope. See Brian Jones: Mapping documents in the binary format (.doc; .xls; .ppt) to the Open XML format. Microsoft will release a Binary Format-to-OpenXML translator project on SourceForge, and not least, publish the binary format documentation under their Open Specification Promise. I’m pretty sure someone will finds things to complain about regardless of how “open” the binary formats are. But Microsoft has indeed just bought themselves some goodwill.

So what happens next? OpenXML’s ISO fast track process is about to hit an important milestone. In late February, some 120 ISO-delegates from 40 countries will meet in Geneva to review Ecma’s proposed resolution of 3,522 comments on OpenXML. After this meeting, the national bodies will have 30 days to reconsider their original vote. Andy Updegrove’s ODF vs. OOXML on the Eve of the BRM is a great analysis of the process so far. Of course Andy is also biased, but he does some pretty solid research, and provides a compelling argument for how the standardisation system is broken.

I live in Denmark, a country that said No in September. It was one of those “with comments” no’s, and I’m pretty sure my country is one of those that Microsoft hope will change its vote at or after the Geneva meeting.

Jasper Bojsen, CTO in Microsoft Denmark, yesterday wrote (in Danish) about myths about Microsoft and ODF. He argues that there are differences between ODF and OpenXML, and that both standards should be ISO approved so that ISO can take charge of making them more interoperable.

Hmmm. That almost makes sense. No, wait, it doesn’t. It’s not ISO’s job to make standards interoperable. To become an ISO standard in the first place, a standard must be “a good citizen” which includes being interoperable.

It may well be that Ecma’s proposed resolution has made OpenXML a better standard, but as far as I can tell, nearly nothing has been done about enabling interoperability with existing ISO-standards. But unless they twist the words, thankfully some improvements have been done, for example it does seem that VML is out of the spec.

So if ISO now goes ahead and approves OpenXML’s fast track, what will be the motivation for Ecma and Microsoft to work for interoperability with other standards? As quoted here, Microsoft intends to stick to OpenXML regardless of what ISO decides, because it’s what their product uses.

At the end of the day, we are talking about standards, not markets, and not products. ISO makes standards, or, Standards, the real thing, not those pesky consortium standards! The market uses the standards when creating competitive products, and the standards are what makes the markets “work”. Only when standards are truly open and interoperable across ecosystems will their markets work. This is why standards bodies should only accept standards that can demonstrate truly independent and “complete” implementations in products by competing market actors. Is this enough? I don’t think so.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • John what was biased in my post? And are you claiming to be neutral?
    Is there a link where I can look at Michael’s paper? It would be interesting to see the view of an IBMer when looking through the lenses of academia.

  • Stephen, we are all biased, it’s just that some are more so than others.

    Bias in your post? Well, “doublespeak and hypocrisy” …

    I don’t claim to be neutral. Well, when I act as a journalist, I try to be, but otherwise, I am of course as biased as the next guy. Sometimes probably much more biased than the next guy, I guess some would say.

    Michael and Søren did their paper in Danish. It is their decision whether to make it public/available. I’ll ping them.

  • Re the paper … thanks.

    Re the post, well saying “doublespeak and hypocrisy” isn’t evidence of bias – I would characterise it as fair comment. IBM is claiming that OpenXML can’t be implemented whilst at the same time announcing that they will add support for it to their products.

    Bob Sutor has said you can’t process OpenXML with standard XML tools, but Rob Weir says the OpenXML support in DB2 comes because it can.

    It’s not bias to point this out John. As you know from when you’ve interviewed me I am not anti-ODF. I don’t see any problem for ODF and OpenXML to coexist, and I think that is already the reality.

    If anything I think you’re demonstrating an intellectual bias for an idealised academic notion of what an Open Standard is, and you’re allowing this to blind you to the real deficiencies in ODF for some users.

    If you look at ISO’s website (http://www.iso.org/iso/about.htm) you’ll read “… ISO is able to act as a bridging organization in which a consensus can be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society, such as the needs of stakeholder groups like consumers and users.”

    You seem to suggest that some stakeholder groups should be excluded, or that some users shouldn’t count. That’s bias on your part though John not mine.

    I’d be happy to come and put these views to your students if you like and we can have the debate!

  • Thanks for quoting me John.

    I have to say that I disagree with you that Open XML is not a “good citizen” and I am also convinced that approving Open XML for ISO is good for interop going forward.

    Anyway, thanks for the inspiration to write about that very subject in more details: http://blog.hvorom.dk/post/2008/01/Myth-Making-Open-XML-an-ISO-Standard-Will-Hurt-Interoperability.aspx

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