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Another Reason Microsoft's OSP Isn't Good Enough
Thursday, March 27 2008 @ 04:14 AM EDT

We've seen the reasons given by the Free Software Law Center as to why Microsoft's Open Specification Promise, or OSP, provides no assurance for FOSS developers. But what about everyone else?

Here's an issue that affects everyone, not just FOSS developers, as explained by the Free Software Foundation South America in a long discussion of OOXML and why NBs should not approve it:

It carries a number of dependencies on earlier Microsoft decisions, not all of which are part of the already-huge specification, and Microsoft's promise covers only fully-compliant implementations. But Microsoft Office isn't fully compliant with the OOXML (Office Open XML) specification, therefore those who seek interoperability with Microsoft's software won't be covered by its promise.

Eek. I understand that to be saying that there are gaps in OSP coverage. You'll get documents you can't legally open unless you are using Microsoft's software, because the extensions found in Office but not in OOXML proper, so to speak, are not covered. Let me explain what I think they are saying this means.

We knew we'd get documents we couldn't open effectively from a technical standpoint, without at least losing something in the translation. But if extensions to the OOXML format, as exemplified in Microsoft Office 2007, are not covered by the OSP, and evidently they are not, when you get a document with, say, spreadsheet macros, or DRM, what legally protects you if open the document? All Microsoft has to do, then, is extend the format, as it already has, and you then can only interoperate with them if you use Microsoft software too. So. OSP gaps. Nice work if you can get it.

Why would anyone in their right mind approve such a thing as this as a *standard*? A standard that you can't use without risk of legal consequences? Oh, you can implement the standard, but if Microsoft doesn't do so without extensions that are not protected by the OSP, there will be no true interoperability, because the OSP doesn't cover the extensions. OSP gaps. You'll be implementing the standard while Microsoft is ignoring it in their products. How do you like them apples? Is interoperability not the point of a document standard? The format will be on paper, and you can implement all you like, but to interoperate with Microsoft's implementations of it, you'll need to use Microsoft software. Great. Locked in again.

You surely need to ask your lawyer before you use this format, I'd think, and certainly before you vote to approve it. This doesn't meet even the most basic elements of simple fairness, if I've understood this correctly. And I believe I have.

And that raises this question: why would any national body vote yes on a format that allows extensions that are not guaranteed to be free of intellectual property dangers, hence enabling an end result that only Microsoft users get to open documents safely and the rest of us can't? Now, that's all well and good for a proprietary business plan, if a vendor must. But for a standard? I'd like to hear the arguments for why that is fair or meets even the most elementary requirements for a standard. What would be the basis, legally, for approving such a discriminatory standard that just happens to benefit a monopoly at the expense of its number one competition? I think at a minimum, the OSP needs to be extended to cover such extensions, so the world can live as one, as the song says, and actually exchange documents freely, regardless of what operating system they like to use. I can't think of any good reason to vote to approve OOXML until the IP issues are resolved. These are resolvable concerns, but until they are, it's simply unconscionable to approve it, as far as I'm concerned.

Here are some more issues raised by FSFLA:

And then, it might very well be the case that Microsoft licensed third parties' patents used in its standard, and its promise does not cover them. Even if anyone else succeeded in addressing, in an alternate implementation, all of the Microsoft-centric dependencies needed for full compliance, there would still be a threat that some third party, colluded with Microsoft or not, would demand patent royalties from this effort. Microsoft itself wouldn't have a problem with this, but how about the rest of us?...

A number of governments, companies and organizations are concerned about the imminent danger of approval of the OOXML proposed standard, because it would void the promise of interoperability through a single international Free Open Standard. Meanwhile, most of the society remains oblivious to the dangers of proprietary standards.

We can't overemphasize their importance. Think Egyptian hieroglyphs without a Rosetta stone. And, to realize the inconvenience of multiple standards, think of the Rosetta stone itself, an official document that had to be published in multiple languages in order to reach all inhabitants of that region. Why would society benefit from having to publish documents in multiple encodings in order to ensure everyone can get to them? We already have one format that works well, it's already supported by all widely-used office suites, and anyone else is permitted to implement it. We are better off without another international standard, Open or Proprietary.

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