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When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 07:46 AM EDT

If you have any doubts about the direction Massachusetts is following in requiring open standards for all government documents, consider what happened when Hurricane Katrina knocked out almost all communications except the Internet. Cell phones and walkie talkies failed, once again, just as they did in 9/11, as David Kirkpatrick tells us in an article in Fortune:
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, much of the region’s communication systems failed or didn’t work properly. Water and wind knocked out power, toppled phone lines, and destroyed cellphone towers. What systems remained were quickly overwhelmed. When rescue workers’ did have working equipment, like walkie-talkies, they often couldn’t connect with others on different communication systems.

Catch that? "On different communication systems." The same thing happened after the tsunami disaster in Thailand, as a report just released by the ePolicy Group reports:

"Responding agencies and nongovernmental groups are unable to share information vital to the rescue effort," the report recalls of the government in Thailand in the tsunami's immediate aftermath. "Each uses different data and document formats. Relief is slowed; coordination is complicated. The need for common, open standards for disaster management was never more stark or compelling."

Isn't it time, after so much suffering, to recognize that keeping people alive is more important than allowing private companies to lock in customers into proprietary systems that don't then work in an emergency? And why does the Internet always work, no matter who you are or what operating system you use? Because it was built, not on proprietary standards, but entirely on open standards. That's why you can send an email to me, even if you are using Microsoft Outlook. I don't run any Microsoft products currently, but because of open standards, I can still read your email, and in an emergency, we will not be disconnected because we are on "different communication systems."

Now, you can't leave decisions like that up to private companies. They will always try to lock us into their little garden, where you can call anyone for free, for example, as long as they sign up for the same cell phone service you use. When I went to visit a relative last year with my cell phone, I found out that my service didn't work in that entire state. Something is really wrong with that.

In an emergency, it could cost us our lives not to be able to rely on standards in communications. Similarly, being able to communicate with our governmental agencies, no matter what operating system we use, is essential. It's like the air we breathe, so essential that you simply can't plan to be without it. The fact that FEMA required victims of Hurricane Katrina to only use Microsoft IE in order to sign up for relief services is a national shame. It's like saying that millions of people don't matter, that the government should just let them fend for themselves. We saw in New Orleans what happens when people have to just fend for themselves, did we not?

You can read about the efforts of tech companies like Google, Sun, Microsoft and IBM to aid the victims of Katrina in the Fortune article, but one thing is worthy of note in particular. There are discussions between the government and companies about how to be better prepared next time and particularly how to set up the Internet to be a primary communications system for emergencies. Note what Microsoft is proposing:

Many industry executives are already talking about how to insure a less ad hoc response to the next disaster. For instance, Microsoft’s Markezich says the industry needs to develop common standards using the XML language (which enables software applications to interoperate), so information can be shared across sites in an emergency.

Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, agrees with Markezich, but adds one serious caveat: “We ought to agree on a set of standards through which the government and private agencies can provide emergency services, but in no case should a company name be attached to those services.” Schwartz was alarmed this week when FEMA announced that online applications for Federal Disaster Assistance would only be accepted from victims who use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser. “I’d hate to see a day when one company would have to be paid before relief could come to a community,” he says.

Schwartz says he’d like to see industry-wide standards so that the Internet can have similar capabilities as the 911 emergency telephone number. Even a cellphone user without a service contract can dial 911 in the U.S. to get help, he points out. “We need to take a close look at whether some of that should be applied to the Internet,” Schwartz says.

Microsoft's XML is a problem. It's part of the controversy in Massachusetts, as they explained when announcing their format choices. For example, in the section on XML, Massachusetts said, "To insure maximum interoperability, it is recommended that proprietary extensions to any XML specifications be avoided." Microsoft refuses to use the XML everyone else has agreed to use. That's the problem. They want us to adopt their proprietary extensions, patents and all, instead. Why would that be in the public's best interest? Can anyone seriously argue that maximum interoperability isn't the proper goal? If it is the right goal, then Microsoft's proprietary version of XML can't be the right choice. It's really that simple.

And note Microsoft's attitude to OpenDocument format, the other part of the controversy: they won't agree to support the standard everyone else has agreed to either. You can read Microsoft's letter [PDF] to Massachusetts along with letters from other companies on the Massachusetts website. We'll be writing about this in more detail, answering Microsoft point by point, but for now, I'll just point out that it's there, so you can get started. Your comments will be helpful too in what we end up writing, so feel free to answer their letter in your comments. You might like to read Wikipedia on OpenDocument for some refreshing counterarguments to Microsoft's assertions in their ugly and menacing letter. The introduction reads like this:

OpenDocument, short for the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, is an open document file format for saving and exchanging editable office documents such as text documents (such as memos, reports, and books), spreadsheets, charts, and presentations. This standard was developed by the OASISconsortium, based upon the XML-based file format originally created by OpenOffice.org.

The standard was publicly developed by a variety of organizations, is publicly accessible, and can be implemented by anyone without restriction. The OpenDocument format is intended to provide an open alternative to proprietary document formats including the popular DOC, XLS, and PPT formats used by Microsoft Office, as well as Microsoft Office Open XML format (this latter format has various licensing requirements that forbid some competitors using it). Organizations and individuals that store their data in an open format avoid being locked in to a single software vendor, leaving them free to switch software if their current vendor goes out of business or changes their software or licensing terms to something less favorable.

While it may not bother Microsoft to have everyone required to buy and use their products in a disaster or to be able to communicate in an emergency, it bothers me a great deal, because I don't use their products. I don't trust their products to work reliably, for one thing. I heard on the news that the FEMA servers kept crashing. And I don't wish to be forced to use any one company's products, period. I'd be one of the dead bodies they find two weeks later, I'm afraid, because I won't be able to communicate, to let people know to come and rescue me.

Microsoft's answer to that is that I should just use their products. Monopolies always want everyone to have to have to use their products. Why wouldn't they want that? It's their bread and butter. Microsoft has spent a great deal of money and effort to kill off its competition, so we'd be left with no choice but to use their products. GNU/Linux and Apple are still standing, however. And millions of us prefer to use their operating systems instead. If my life depends on it, and I have to choose between those three operating systems, I wouldn't choose Microsoft. The Department of Defense uses Linux and Apple, and I want to too.

It is the role of government to protect the lives and property of citizens, to look after us. Didn't you feel that deeply when watching Katrina's aftermath? If governments don't play that role, then it's just every man for himself, and while the human spirit is more reliably kind than corporations or governments, as we've witnessed, the truth is that some things are too big for individuals to handle on their own. So we can be so grateful to those who built the Internet for us, that they chose not to make a bundle for themselves by patenting every bit of it and them balkanizing it into proprietary fiefdoms, but gave thought to creating a fail-safe communications system, something you can rely on no matter what. And it worked. Of course, it was the government that did that. I shudder to think what Microsoft would have done, if it had invented the Internet. Every bit of it would be patented, and we'd all be paying through the nose and would be restricted to whatever Microsoft chose to let us do.

Now, it would like to be the toll booth that all citizens must pay to communicate, and specifically to communicate with the government. They refuse to support standards like the OASIS OpenDocument format that Massachusetts has chosen to ensure open communication with all citizens not only today but for generations to come. Why? Isn't it obvious?

Schwartz notes something else of interest:

For all the corporate efforts, Schwartz points out that in many ways the most useful services for victims and evacuees are bubbling up organically from below, thanks to the work of individuals and small groups using the Internet. For instance, Craigslist became a key tool to find loved ones and services in many cities affected by Katrina. Volunteers started gathering up abandoned pets in New Orleans and started a site with photos online for owners to come claim them. And The Open House Project, started by three venture capitalists in Nashville, is coordinating offers of housing nationwide with Katrina victims who need it.

“Thank God the network was there,” says Schwartz, “and for Craigslist, and for the networks that survived. The tech community was there to help make up for the inability of the government to recognize that there was a crisis.”

Those ad hoc citizen relief efforts were more useful than the government precisely because of open standards. Anyone, no matter what operating system they were using, could use Craigslist. The same isn't true for FEMA's site. So, people flocked to sites like Craigslist to find one another. The only reason they could do that is because the Internet it built on open standards. If Microsoft is successful in persuading the powers that be to establish emergency communications based on their proprietary XML, it will shut out millions of people. That is too big a price to pay. And there is no reason why Microsoft can't follow the same XML standards as the rest of the world. They may feel it is in their best interest to have proprietary extensions on XML, patented to boot, but it isn't in the public's best interest to be forced to use it, and frankly, why would any government wish to reinforce a monopoly's monopoly position? How is that good for the marketplace? For that matter, how does it build faith and respect for the law?

Microsoft complains in its letter that Massachusetts first said it would accept Microsoft as an "open" format, based on it being a kind of ad hoc standard, in the sense that a lot of people use Microsoft. But the change in Massachusetts' policy resulted from listening to comments from the public. That really is what happened. Should Massachusetts *not* listen to its citizens, after asking for their comments? Really. Think about that seriously. All Microsoft has to do is support OpenDocument and the same XML everyone else wants to use. That's it. You tell me why they won't. Give me one good reason.

Microsoft has a lot of money already, you know. Let's not let it become blood money.


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