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To read comments to this article, go here
Alex Brown: OOXML is like a baroque castle with secret passages and crumbling towers
Monday, April 14 2008 @ 09:08 PM EDT

Here's a quotation for the ages, from an Alex Brown comment on Andrew Updegrove's Standards Blog (scroll down) asking Brown if he'd agree that ODF was cleaner than OOXML:
"I'd go with that. I think ISO/IEC 26300 (ODF 1.0) can be compared to a neat house built on good foundations which is not finished; 29500 (OOXML) is a baroque cliffside castle replete with toppling towers, secret passages and ghosts: it is all too finished."

Now he tells us. Still, better late than never. And I couldn't have put it better myself. But if it's that bad, why is it an ISO standard? A standard with secret passages is a standard no one can implement unless they have a map and the keys. We don't have either. Only Microsoft does. Thanks, ISO, for this little anticompetitive joke.

Meanwhile, the protests are not stopping, despite the rather cynical call for peace and an end to "personal attacks" from 30 of the attendees of the Microsoft-heavy SC34 committee that met in Oslo recently to try to figure out what in the world to do next with OOXML. Now that it's a "standard", somebody has to scrape off all the goo and make it actually work. I call it cynical, because as far as I'm concerned, OOXML is itself an attack on ODF. It seems to me to have no other purpose. Well. The ghosts.

Speaking of personal attacks, did that Microsoft executive ever apologize to Matthew Holloway, by the way, for that smear? How about the attacks on me and on Groklaw? Were the Microsoft folks planning to apologize to me personally? Jason? That would be refreshing. After I recovered from hitting my head on the pavement after a ladylike swoon from the shock. Notice how I never got into the gutter with retaliation for what they said? It's not because I don't know how. It's because I consider such smears undignified and indecent, and I won't do it.

And for another example of contrast, here's Steve Pepper's speech at the Oslo protest. Notice any personal attacks? On the contrary, it was a dignified and fair presentation. The contrast is obvious. Of course, if they meant Microsoft and its friends should cut it out, or Alex Brown should stop, I heartily agree. Personal attacks are never acceptable.

That same SC34 meeting came up with some odd resolutions, "Resolutions of SC 34 Plenary Meeting, 2008-04-05/09, Oslo, Norway". One thing they decided is that the final draft of the format, the one everyone already voted on in its unfinished state, will be done for real and available by May 1st. And this: "Acclamation: SC 34 expresses its appreciation to Dr. Alex Brown for his leadership and excellent work in running the BRM on DIS 29500 as the Convener." He's anointed to run the maintenance group too, of course. Here's who sponsored the meeting:

Acclamation G: SC 34 expresses its appreciation to the following organizations for sponsoring this meeting.
* Linpro AS
* Mamut ASA
* Software Innovation ASA
* StatoilHydro ASA
* Questpoint AS
* Microsoft Norge AS

You remember StatoilHydro, I'm sure, the faithful Microsoft supporter that ended up starring in the article Scandal in Standards Norway, and on the rest, Google is your friend. I see a lot of Microsoft. And here's my favorite part of the resolutions:

c) Transparency of process, consistent with JTC 1 Directives, is a goal of the recommended process.

Hahahaha. They are cracking me up. Here's my second favorite:

e) The proposal should recommend ways in which onward work on ISO/IEC 29500 may be carried out in as timely a way as possible, without recourse to the accelerated mechanisms of PAS or Fast Track procedures.

I see. The hurry was only to get it rubberstamped. No need to hurry to make it work *now*. The ad hoc group will present its findings and recommendations in October. They claim they want to hear what is wrong with OOXML, but the world already tried to tell them, and they didn't want to hear it. But you might start with the OSP, if you ever get serious. A standard that FOSS can't safely use is not a standard to me.Here's who attended:

National bodies and Liaison organizations present at the closing plenary:

Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Korea (Republic of), Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, USA, Ecma International and the XML Guild

Resolution 4 suggests setting up a maintenance committee for OOXML to get its facelift, and they envision more:

The passage of ISO/IEC 29500 has instituted a new era of standards activity in SC 34 related to document formats. ISO/IEC 29500 does not represent an isolated phenomenon, since SC 34 is also responsible for ISO/IEC 26300 and for interoperability between these and other projects.

SC 34 envisages the creation of three distinct working groups that meet the needs of:

1. ISO/IEC 29500
2. ISO/IEC 26300
3. Work on interoperability/harmonization between document format standards
and wishes to incorporate existing expertise on these standards.

For these reasons, SC 34 hereby establishes an ad hoc group pursuant to the JTC 1 Directives, clause 2.6.2, for investigating how the first of these groups may be set up most effectively.

So they resolve to look into it. I note they have dreams of controlling/maintaining ODF, not just OOXML, and making the two interoperable. We'll see, but I can't see why OASIS would say yes to that. Nor do I believe Microsoft will allow true interoperability with ODF, given a choice, or with the GPL or with any commercial open source vendor. Isn't that the whole point of OOXML? To cut off ODF's air supply, using monopoly presence and determined annoyance factors to make sure no one uses it?

Exhibit A, Microsoft's announcement of more, pages and pages, of "preliminary" versions of documentation for protocols between Sharepoint Server 2007 and other Microsoft server products and with Microsoft Office, Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Outlook, and protocols between 2007 Microsoft Office "system client applications" and "other Microsoft server products":

As an example, developers working with SharePoint protocols will have additional resources to develop products that work with Microsoft Office client applications and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server products. These specifications will help spark the energy and imagination of countless developers to create new products and improve existing solutions.

In another example, developers working with Exchange Server protocols will have additional resources to build applications that directly communicate and store information with either Exchange Server or Microsoft Office Outlook related to e-mail, calendars, contacts, voice mail and task tracking....

As described in Microsoft’s interoperability principles, everyone will have access to this protocol documentation without having to sign a license or pay a royalty or other fee. For those protocols that may be covered by a Microsoft patent, Microsoft will make available patent licenses on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms, at low royalty rates. In addition, Microsoft will publish a list of the protocols that are covered by patents and will make available a list of the specific Microsoft patents and patent applications that cover each protocol. However, open source developers, whether commercial or noncommercial, will not need a patent license for the development of implementations of these protocols or for the noncommercial distribution of these implementations, according to a Microsoft patent pledge for open source developers, issued pursuant to the interoperability principles.

So, what does that mean? I read it as saying FOSS can implement, but not distribute commercially, without crossing Microsoft's palm with silver for Microsoft patents no court has verified as legitimate. Because the rates are so low, evidently the purpose isn't money so much as exclusion. Everyone can interoperate except Red Hat and other real competitors to Microsoft, those who have not sold out and continue to uphold the license that Linux is made available under, the GPL.

I hope no one goes near this stuff at this point, even if you use another license, since nothing is currently clear and in stone about the exact terms, until they are made known later. I take this as Microsoft taking one more step in their patent threat strategy to kill off the GPL and indeed the Open Source business model, to the extent that I understand their thinking. I don't forget the Mike Anderer memo about Microsoft and Linux, specifically Red Hat. Here's that part of it:

In a world where there are $500 million dollar patent infringement lawsuits imposed on OS companies (although this is not completely settled yet), how would somebody like Red Hat compete when 6 months ago they only had $80-$90 million in cash? At that point they could not even afford to settle a fraction of a single judgment without devastating their shareholders. I suspect Microsoft may have 50 or more of these lawsuits in the queue. All of them are not asking for hundreds of millions, but most would be large enough to ruin anything but the largest companies.

I see every move Microsoft makes, no matter what they call it, or how often they use the word 'open' or 'interoperable' as actually another step forward in that larger strategy, and I hope the EU Commission sees it, before it's too late.

Of course, it could very well be the case that the published list of patents will not have anything on it anyone needs, as happened with the Samba guys, who presented with a list realized they could work around it all. Or there might be obvious weaknesses in the patents. But no matter how you look at it, it's another danger sign from Microsoft.

That's interoperability, Microsoft style. You can all interoperate, except for the only true competition Microsoft has. A girl might even get the idea that Microsoft is afraid to compete with GNU/Linux on an even field. Hopefully, there will be some progress in the Bilski case, if the court reads the Red Hat brief explaining how software patents harm Open Source and realizes what is at stake, thanks to Microsoft.

Anyway, the protests continue, for the simple reason that people are disgusted by what they saw, I gather, and they understand what's at stake. In India there was an Open Letter to Wipro, Infosys and TCS published recently by students at the National Institute of Technology. It begins like this:

This letter is to express our deep disappointment over your open support to the OOXML format forced through ISO by Microsoft. Being the top IT giants and thus the representatives of the IT industry in the country, it is a great shock to us that you do not stand with academia of the country and its representatives like the IITs, IIMs and IISc in supporting the Open Document Format (ODF) which is a true Free and Open Standard already recognised as an ISO Standard.

Of course, India voted against OOXML, but the students noticed the vote breakdown:

1. National Informatics Center - NO
2. Center for Development of Advanced Computing - NO
3. Computer Society of India - NO
4. Department of IT - NO
5. IBM - NO
6. Institute for Electronic Governance - Absent
7. Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad - NO
8. Indian Institute of Science - NO
9. Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi - NO
10. Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay - NO
11. Infosys - YES
12. Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkatta - NO
13. Manufacturers Association of IT - Abstain
14. Microsoft - YES
15. National Association of Software and Services Companies - YES
16. National Institute of Smart Governance - Absent
17. Reserve Bank of India - Absent
18. Red Hat - No
19. Standardization Testing and Quality Certification Directorate - NO
20. Sun - NO
21. Tata Computer Services - YES
22. Wipro - YES (for changing India's vote from NO to Abstain)

The students noticed such fine details, and their letter was a request for an explanation. By the way, did you notice that Sun voted No? Just to put to rest the conspiracy theorists out there busily spinning some fables.

Todays Hindu Report doesn't get all the details right, but they noticed the same thing the students did:

The BIS, which represents India at ISO, had 19 members of which 13 voted against Microsoft’s OOXML. Many academics and colleges (NIT-Calicut among others) have written open letters to TCS, Infosys, NASSCOM, Wipro (that voted to abstain) and Microsoft (voted in favour of OOXML). There is a rising fear among academics and advocates of free software standards that BIS will come under pressure in the absence of any national policy. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are the only two States who have a policy in place.

“Very big voices like NASSCOM and Infosys that have not participated in even one meeting have voted irresponsibly. We fear that if such lobbying continues, academics and individuals like us will be put on the defensive, unless there is a policy in place,” said Nagarjuna G., professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who was part of the technical committee of BIS. This committee alone identified 200-odd technical flaws in OOXML’s 7,000 page document — the Open Document Format is 600 pages — and more than 1,000 others were identified internationally.

I see I am not alone in viewing OOXML as a move of aggression. Microsoft must be realizing by now by the outpouring of dismay all over the world that this isn't just a typical vendor fight, where winner takes all and everyone shakes hands and moves on. The public cares about ODF, because it realizes it will impact every one of us directly, and we see the obvious, that OOXML is a spoiler. This has nothing to do with market share.


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