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About Massachusetts... Updated 2 Xs
Thursday, July 12 2007 @ 05:01 PM EDT

You know how I always tell you when I make a mistake? Well, it looks like I made one when I told you that I didn't think Massachusetts would care what you said in any emails about Microsoft's OfficeOpen XML specification (now Ecma 376) being proposed as an addition to their list of usable "open standards". I'm hearing that they are reading the emails and will take them seriously.

It's a proposal, and it's not yet carved in stone. Time will tell if they mean it, but with that reassurance, I have to put my cynicism on hold, at least for now, and say that if this is an issue you care about, you need to let them know how you feel in polite and informative emails before July 20th, 2007. It never hurts to try, particularly since I've no doubt Microsoft is lobbying wherever it can. When I thought it was useless, I didn't want to pretend otherwise or have you engage in make work. But if it has a chance, it's very different.

Here's the address to write to: standards at (Only use the @ symbol instead of the at.)

I suspect the most important thing right now is numbers, so even a short email is helpful. They can't know how you feel unless you tell them, and they can't understand the tech unless it's presented with proofs of statements made. And remember, it's a new crew, so some of the things we explained the first time may not have been transferred to the new brains at the helm. So please let me provide you with some resources, so that if you wish some materials at hand to compose a more thoughtful and more technical email, it will save you some time.

You can find some suggestions of topics that might be addressed in the original article. More resources here, particularly this one, Dual Standards: More Choice or Less?" and here's an article asking how open is OpenXML. You may wish to write about the formula definitions issue or explain the spreadsheet issue. Here's a letter someone else sent, Andy Updegrove, for some ideas. But I know you have your own. Oddly, they so far are not posting the emails received, but hopefully they will. If not, just cc me and I'll post them all here, if you want me to. Or just leave a comment with the gist of your message.

Also, since the issue before was access by the disabled, I believe it would be useful to explain how ODF has addressed those issues, with some comparisons between OpenXML and ODF. Peter Korn has some interesting material on that very point here and a followup here. There are more resources on accessibility on Groklaw's ODF page.

It might be useful as well as to make clear the differences between Vista and XP and what that means for applications that are currently available for XP that help the disabled. A lot of people who are not disabled are having trouble with the new GUI, after all. Others find that the two are not compatible with each other in all respects, or so I'm reading. I don't use Vista, so I can't speak with authority, but I'm hearing that you can't read your old Word documents in Office 2007 unless you install some kind of a patch. That hardly seems like an advance in interoperability.

One of the strongest arguments against having two standards was raised by Dr. G. Nagarjuna, Chairman FSF India, submitted to the Working Committee, Board of Indian Standards on Wordprocessing:

In Ecma's response document the truth of the matter comes out very vividly:
OpenXML is designed to represent the existing corpus of documents faithfully, even if that means preserving idiosyncrasies that one might not choose given the luxury of starting from a clean slate. In the ODF design, compatibility with and preservation of existing Office documents were not goals. Each set of goals is valuable; sacrificing either at the expense of the other may not be in the best interest of users. (p.6 Ecma Response)

This is the fact of the matter. This clearly shows that one of them is trying to preserve the existing data created by a single vendor, while the other is to provide a generic encoding standard for office documents. It is true therefore that their purposes are different. Since there is a difference in purpose despite the overlapping with ODF, Ecma argues, OOXML can also exist with ODF.

But the issue is: providing a way of preserving a vendor's old documents is the service that a vendor is expected to do. This must happen. This can happen by converting the documents into ODF. Ecma did not prove that this is impossible.

We therefore think, that Ecma has the burden to prove that proprietary documents made by them cannot be converted into ODF. It is very likely that there can be a few elements that cannot be translated, since ODF was not made to serve a particular vendor's requirements. Once such elements are identified, Ecma can propose a model of extending ODF so that the possible problems are sorted out. This is the desirable way.

That should get you started. But I know you have your own thoughts. You certainly have the technical knowledge to explain technical matters well, should you wish to.

Finally, here are the earlier articles (in reverse chronological order, most recent first), when Groklaw was specifically asked for input:

Don't forget, also, that there is much, much more on Groklaw's permanent ODF-MS XML page. I think you can find everything you might need to write a useful email on this topic. The overarching question is this: does Ecma 376 qualify as an open standard?

Update: TechWorld is reporting that prior to this article appearing, MA had received only 50 letters, fewer than when ODF was considered. Of course, I know there are more now, because I've received some and you've posted others here. Note that the article says they have no plans to post the letters until after they make a decision at the end of the month, but that indicates that they will publish them:

Bethann Pepoli, acting CIO of the ITD, said the commonwealth will not publish any correspondence it receives during the public comment period, which expires July 20, until after a final decision on adoption is made at the end of this month.

"We have received about 50 responses so far, but we have another week left," she said during a July 12 interview. Unlike Updegrove, none of those respondents have made their comments public.

Pepoli said the response rate is not heavier than in 2005, when the state adopted ODF as an open format and received nearly 160 responses. The 2005 campaign sparked a firestorm of debate over open formats that eventually led to the resignation of both of the ITD CIOs who preceded Pepoli.

Note this detail as well:

Microsoft also said that more than 1,150 partners from 50 countries and six continents have registered support for Ecma-376.

We knows from "Get the Facts" days how that might work, but Massachusetts might not. So if they don't hear countering information, I expect it might seem to them like ODF and OpenXML (Ecma 376) are comparable.

Update 2: Here's an article, "The converter hoax" which explains that if it were possible for converters to work, you wouldn't actually need them, and it concludes like this:

The promise of the converters is an empty one. It is a hoax.

If users of MS-OOXML make use of the Microsoft specific functions, they will find themselves locked into as much vendor and product-dependency as if no Open Standard or converter existed....

The only effective way for users of Microsoft Office to avoid that lock-in into a single-vendor dependency would be to save all their documents in the Open Document Format (ODF) by using the ODF plugin for Microsoft.

In other words: The only way to not be locked into MS-OOXML is to stay away from it. Because no matter what Microsoft and its business partners claim, the converters promote lock-in, they don't avoid it.

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