November 30, 2005

XP + Free

John Gotze is having the same XPerience as me, since I cleaned up my old WinXP partition to sync up my own User Experience with colleagues who are using Windows. (I find I can't empathize with clients and their problems as well when I'm running Linux and they're pulling out their hair, alone.)

It is what I was talking about 18 months ago in "The Power of Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice on Windows" for Sys-Con. XP with all those free apps will get you through the's alright...

Funny, I used to be about 2 years ahead; now I'm slightly less untimely.

Tim Bray on Dollars & Cents

City of Mannheim to OpenOffice on Windows

"We want to decide our IT strategy in Mannheim and not have Microsoft make the decision for Mannheim,"
...declares Gerd Armbruster, the IT infrastructure manager at the German city.

3,500 users

"We migrated from Microsoft Exchange Server 2005 to Oracle Collaboration Suite because it [OCS] supports open standards — it is proprietary software but it uses standard protocols,"
...says Armbruster, talking to ZDNet UK about his plans.

This is a pattern that is being repeated, the World over.

November 29, 2005

Microsoft's Capricious "Openness"

Two new worthy pieces on the Microsoft file format "openness" gambit. As the dust settles, the substance looks feinter and feinter.

"Massachusetts Assaults Monoculture"
| CNet
by Dan Geer

"Microsoft Drops the Office Open Standard Ball" | eWeek
by Steven Vaughan-Nichols

Flattered but not Impressed

Simon Phipps' comment on "Ecma" should be definitive.

The covenant is incomplete and question upon question remains.

November 28, 2005

Bob Sutor: The "Pure Openness" of a Standard

At one point over the Thanksgiving holiday, Bob Sutor broke away from the leftovers to add a large dollop of knowledge and a generous helping of common sense to Microsoft's "Ecma" tempest-in-a-teapot.

He lays out what a purely open standard would behave like in terms of several characterisitics:

1. Development
2. Maintenance
3. Accession
4. Implementation
5. Modification by Others

Then he goes on to describe how Microsoft XML -- such as it exists or can be described for the relevant purpose (we have no spec for the Office "12" implementation of it) -- behaves according to each. It's no surprise to anyone who pays attention to the substance of this situation that there are nothing but questions, mostly having to do with how the new Technical Committee at Ecma and then, possibly, ISO will behave in terms of permitting public, open collaborative input toward the ongoing formulation of Microsoft's XML file format.

If there is no forum for individuals and entities to make technical contributions to the format and no public open debate or consensus, if MS XML remains a platform for proprietary extensions, then the Ecma/ISO standardization process is a sham. Microsoft will have given the market its concessions on intellectual property and license terms (these are a few of the requirements articulated in Massachusetts) and yet the format would continue to score poorly against OpenDocument because it lacks a collaborative intent & public apparatus.

This comparison -- or a comparison which may be necessary between competing standards -- reminds me of an earlier exchange with Bob in which I suggested a Beaufort Scale for file formats. The only problem with placing OpenDocument (a certain "Beaufort 13" on our scale of openness) alongside MS XML is that MS XML does not exist today in the open form that's being broadcast and the many remaining questions mean that its openness cannot yet be qualified or quantified.

Those who opine on with "optimism" or gloat about Microsoft's new openness would do well to keep their own counsel for the many months it takes for these details to be revealed.

Web Word-Processor Sightings

Nat Torkington, O'Reilly editor & author (Pearl), has a neat entry on O'Reilly Radar about Writely's Sam Shillace and his small team using C# -- as Nat says, "the first Web 2.0 success that I can think of that was written in .NET."

Here's another Web-ified Word-Processor...Writely validation.

Word-Processors are becoming a crowded space.

Dear Old Stockholm

Stockholm Sweden will be trying on Novell Desktop Linux and OpenOffice for the winter. Does it say for 25,000 users (or was that the price of a single-user license for Microsoft Office)?

My Swenska ist nicht so gut but it looks like the city will be saving millions of kronor per year on license say nothing of the untolled productivity gains and blue-sky access to document data in our world-renowned OpenDocument file format.

November 27, 2005

Distrust & Verify

Nick Carr adds intelligently to the conversation about Microsoft's cynical half-measure to "open" its file format:

Whether it's a huge step forward remains to be seen - there are a few weasel words in the official announcements - though it does look like a clear step forward. But excuse me if I hold my applause. Microsoft has been an obstructionist on open documents for years, and the reason it's finally changing its ways is because governments have been holding a gun to its head, abandoning or threatening to abandon Office in favor of the open-source alternative OpenOffice. (Microsoft still refuses to make OpenOffice's Open Document format compatible with Office.) For Yates to say that Microsoft's announcement is "the beginning of the end for closed documents" is ludicrous. The beginning happened a long time ago, and Microsoft had nothing to do with it. It would be nice if the company acknowledged that.

So, sure, let's welcome this move. But my advice to the governments and other organizations that have spurred it is this: Keep up the pressure.

Nick Carr | RoughType

November 26, 2005

From Ajax to Zimbra is usually well-behind the curve -- like Microsoft -- on technology issues; however, Rachel Rosmarin does a nice piece on the wider use of the fresh techniques for delivering applications over a Web browser.

Rachel Rosmarin |

November 25, 2005

George was the Best

One of the very best players in the English/Northern Irish game throughout the 1960's and into the early 70's, George Best, died this week.

Michael Walker's obituary about "the Keith Moon of Manchester United," is at The Guardian Unlimited.

Belfast is not a city noted for forgiveness but where George Best was concerned, among the public, it was a bottomless well. To local politicians it was different, though of course now there is a notion that the proposed new national stadium should be named after Best. It's too late.

It should have been done years ago. Unofficially Best must have known what he meant to Belfast, but it would have been good for him to see it in bronze. Recognition was a problem for Best: he had too much of it from those who could offer him little, not enough of it from those who could shape him. He said the captaincy of United might have changed his life. Instead he began a pattern of departure. As the poet said: "We live our lives forever taking leave."

Message to All Microsoft Customers...

This is Microsoft negotiating. Negotiating with the market. They are pretending they have just given up a lot.

You can get everything, if you just hold out for it: OpenDocument. If you're disciplined; if you don't flinch.

Move to Standardize MS XML an Uphill Climb

For a revealing look at the internals of MS XML versus OpenDocument, see this useful post by the gentlemen at the OpenDocument Fellowship (Daniel Carrera, Bruce D'Arcus, J. David Eisenberg and Alex Hudson).

MS XML was designed for implementation by one office suite while OpenDocument was designed for implementation by any and all office suites. The internals tell the weather.

The article's implied argument is strongest on reuse of existing standards: OpenDocument scores well in its implementation of existing standards -- on XLink and with Metadata, for example -- while MS XML betrays a distinct lack of respect for extant standards, working with data in ways to which developers are not accustomed.

(What bleeds through the lines here is hubris: that the Microsoft engineers made the error of assuming their work would become the referenced implementation.)

UPDATE 11/28/2005

There is a relevant comment on Brian Jones' blog about this topic.

If Microsoft wishes to satisfy customers' requirements, the ones on which they'll need to work the hardest are interoperability and open collaboration by multiple parties in formulating the standard. Moreover, the sloppy internals of MS XML indicate the need for a re-think of their exploitation of the XML rules if they have sincere ambitions for international standardization and acceptance by developers of non-Microsoft office suite products.

MS XML as an "open" standard is 12 to 18 months behind OpenDocument in organizing within a standards body and about 5 years behind in testing and usage. As a reflection of innovation, OpenDocument makes it look positively antique. The subtext of this cautionary tale is that the best ideas are those that survive the white-hot indignities of wide scrutiny, open testing and public humiliation. Opening up is a cultural journey, a state of mind and not a checklist of customer requirements.

The road ahead for Microsoft on the file format looks Sisyphaean; on that the view is clear.

"ECMA" - Questions Remain about MS XML Openness

I confess that I possess fear, uncertainty & doubt about the meaning of "ECMA." There isn't, in fact, much to go on.

The ECMA/ISO announcement reflects Microsoft's work to mitigate certain problems customers have voiced about the difficulty, in some cases impossibility, of implementing MS XML Reference Schemas.

There have been concerns over Microsoft's patents in the schemas and over the license of the schemas, which prohibits them from being implemented within office suite software that uses Open Source & Free Software licensing.

Questions remain about these and other many questions that it is impossible to comment without speculating.

Proprietary Dependencies

Will there be, for example, calls from MS XML files on proprietary applications? How will MS XML implement DRM, for example, or other binary elements like OLE objects or VBA projects? Developers and users are rightly concerned that an "open" standard file format of Microsoft's does not have so many proprietary dependencies that its "openness" is just another tag.

Intellectual Property

Microsoft's covenant not to sue was just published. It created this "ECMA" discussion. It does exist, but it only applies to MS Office 2003; what are we to imagine the implications are for Microsoft's next-version office suite product, Office "12", the one that will be available around the time the schemas ostensibly come out of the standards organizations? At this point, imagine is all we can do until the specification for the relevant MS XML Reference Schemas are published. When will that be? We are left wondering.


When will Microsoft release the MS XML specification that's being submitted to Ecma and ISO? Soon? Or will developers need to wait the year and a half until Ecma signs off, then ISO? Additionally, what is the MS XML specification as it pertains to Office "12"? Until these are made public, these announcements have a vaporous air about them.

Standard Development Process

Submission to Ecma International is pending, so we don't know if Ecma will accept MS XML. Then, the same sequence will be necessary to get it into ISO -- for submission and approval. We know precious little about the style of the would be Ecma Technical Committee, its composition, the rules of process, the intellectual property rights policies or governance policies of this body. Will there be a collaborative meeting process that is open for public participation; will individuals and companies be able to openly submit ideas to the specification? Will there be a public or industry concensus in the ongoing formulation of this new standard?

If the movement of Microsoft to open its file format is to be credible, these questions need to be addressed specifically to be put to bed.

Once they are addressed (we estimate things won't be suitably transparent until late-2006 or early-2007), then customers should be trusted to be able to compare a Microsoft "open" file format with the available alternative.

Today, however, customers can move into a complete, fully articulated implementation of an open XML file format, OpenDocument, which is available in numerous different office suite applications (ratification by ISO pending).

OpenDocument sponsors none of the fear, uncertainty or doubt associated with MS XML and its wished for relationships with standards organizations.

November 23, 2005

MS XML's Self-Centered Covenant

Andy Updegrove, counselor to OASIS and poobah of, kindly offers a line-by line interpretation of Microsoft's covenant not to sue developers and others who one day might deploy their XML schemas.

Andy concludes that -- apart from the unease created by the covenant being containted on a web page at a site controlled by Microsoft, where the content can change at any time -- the covenant is not unusual as a defensive revocation right.

What stands out to me is that the covenant language as posted on Microsoft's web site only mentions MS Office 2003 -- the existing office suite (which does contain a version of MS XML). The pledge, as Andy notes, does not explicitly extend to future versons of their XML schemas. It must do this in order to be remotely relevant to this competitive situation Microsoft is postulating against OpenDocument.

Now Microsoft launced a global PR initiative a few days ago relating to this covenant and the "opening" of the file format in Office "12." But Office "12" is at least a year away from final release and the ECMA and ISO relationships may take a few years to bear fruit. This leads to the conclusion that the announcements of the last few days are insincere because the covenant, here, not to sue does not mention Office "12". This, on its face, has been a text-book PR-driven Market-Freeze...pure PR.

Andy goes on to analyze the Sun covenant not to sue relating to OpenDocument and comes up with a revealing comparison:

"the version of the specification to which the [Sun] covenant applies is on the OASIS Web site, and is therefore not under Sun's control."

"[Sun's] defensive revocation right mirrors that of Microsoft..., but with one important exception: while Microsoft has reserved the right to protect itself, Sun has reserved the right, if it wishes, to be a "patent policeman" that could assist any implementer of ODF."

If there's anything to be taken from this, it's that Microsoft's sincerity in offering a format that people can be confident to build around should be rigorously and persistently questioned.

November 22, 2005

"ECMA" - Where's the Beef?

There's no there there on "ECMA."

David Wheeler made this stimulating post to the OpenDocument Fellowship discuss list this afternoon:
The notion of a standard with licensing terms that forbid some competitors from implementing it is reprehensible. Massachusetts eventually saw through this, but many others may not.

It is possible that Microsoft may drop those licensing terms and allow anyone to implement it, as part of their discussions with ECMA. In which case, hooray! But I've seen no evidence that this is true. Another issue is that Microsoft's XML format hasn't gone through the multi-year vetting and fixing [that OpenDocument has undergone], so [Microsoft's] format probably has a LOT of problems, and Microsoft will certainly want those mistakes enshrined, not fixed.

Both OASIS and ECMA have the right to submit to ISO, directly. But OASIS is done with their standard -- after many years and a wide group of reviewers -- and has already submitted their results to ISO. ECMA hasn't even started evaluating Microsoft's proposal; it certainly hasn't approved it and sent it on to ISO. If ECMA rubber-stamps this proposal immediately, it'll be blatantly obvious that's what they're doing. I would expect OpenDocument to become an ISO standard long before Microsoft's XML format becomes a standard, if it ever does.

Remember that standards can be withdrawn, too. Sun submitted Java to ECMA, many companies invested billions of dollars on that promise (IBM invested over a billion dollars all by itself, if I recall correctly), and then Sun decided to cancel it... leaving no standard at all. OpenDocument is far less risky than Microsoft XML at this time, because instead of a hope for an eventual standard, for a product that is still not available, OpenDocument is a fully released standard with many actual implementations already available.

(with kind permission of David Wheeler)

Have you noticed what little substance there is behind this announcement? Far less than the usual vacuuosness (less than even the Sun/Google announcement), and the large number of international newspapers that ran the story should be the first clue that nothing is happening.

What meat there is on the bone is a farrago of me-too stuff for a manufactured comparison to OpenDocument (my friend Amy Wohl, in fact, is working on one of those right now). About the standards-body parts, as David Wheeler noted, there's nothing but uncertainty here concerning developments that may or may not play out many months away.

The only reasonable conclusion is that "ECMA" is pure Market-Freeze from The Microsoft Special Sun Tsu Playbook.

Accordingly, my own Art-of-War cheat-sheet tells me that this tactic should not be dignified with numerous blog posts (this is 3 -- sorry 4 -- today, for me) and lots of email chatter.


David Berlind's Curiosity

David Berlind, as usual, is asking all the questions we were afraid to ask about Microsoft's Closed/Open ECMA play. And there are so many.

It's especially interesting when David starts digging into questions about the unknown rules of ECMA Technical Committees, and then our old friend the filibusterer, Morgan Reed III, who's the Association for Competitive Technology's vice president of public affairs (a Microsoft AstroTurf specialist), shows up asking, 'Yeah, and what about the OASIS TC?'

Full Piece | Between the Lines

Disinformation & Doublespeak

In light of Microsoft's big public relations push behind its new CLOSED "Open XML" file format and the ECMA play, it may be a good time to review the principals of Disinformation and Doublespeak.

This may give loyal readers something meaty for bedside over the holiday weekend.


Twenty-five Ways to Suppress the Truth:
The Rules of Disinformation
| by H. Michael Sweeney

(includes as a special bonus, The 8 Traits of the Disinformationalist)

Doublespeak is language deliberately constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning, often resulting in a "communication bypass". Such language is associated with governmental, military, and corporate institutions. Doublespeak may be in the form of bald euphemisms ("downsizing" for "firing of many employees") or deliberately ambiguous phrases ("wet work" for "assassination"). Doublespeak is distinguished from other euphemisms through its deliberate usage by governmental, military, or corporate institutions.

New Blood for OpenDocument


Writely, the new Web-based word-processing program that accommodates document collaboration over the Internet, now supports OpenDocument as well as the MS Office formats.

This Wiki-esque development, along with the sense we have of Google creeping silently into this passion-play, should be a boon to users who revile the traditional office suite redlining features (called "Tracking Changes") and even those stumped by OpenOffice/StarOffice's elegant but arcane Templates-cum-Version-Control features.

WikiCalc 0.1

While we're talking about the Web-ification of the office suite tool-set, in a conversation I had with Dan Bricklin last week -- about his Web-based publishing-tool-in-a-spreadsheet-metaphor, called WikiCalc (which I am Alpha testing now) -- Dan mentioned as much that WikiCalc's outputting to the OpenDocument format for spreadsheets was a no-brainer -- not that it's easy, necessarily, but that it is an obvious thing to do.

The more, the merrier.

Can you say, "b.r.o.w.s.e.r"?

Microsoft's Closed "Open XML"

Phase ONE: Abject Denial

Phase TWO: "We was robbed!"

Phase THREE: Immitation is sincerest form of flattery.

Microsoft is now pursuing a scorched earth head-to-head competition on File Formats, having announced with a global PR push that they will have an "Open" file format standard coming out sometime in 2006.

They will pursue validation with the International Standards Organization ("ISO") -- just like OpenDocument.

They will submit their MS XML to another standards body in Geneva: ECMA? ECMA who? -- just like OpenDocument with OASIS.

They have a large Library on their side (The British Library) -- just like OpenDocument (Library of Congress, The National Archive (US), The Austrailian National Archive).

Much remains unclear about whether control of the MS XML specification, once held within a standards body, will remain with the company or be, in fact, open to the public. The latter alternative seems impossible if Microsoft are taking all this trouble; there's the rub which represents the difference between Microsoft's formats and OpenDocument.

The only reason for Microsoft to pursue this expensive course and continue to refuse to incorporate OpenDocument into their Office product is to preserve for themselves as least some control of the file formats and therefore some control of the worldwide markets for office suite and operating system software.

This strategy is revealing, it acknowledges that company officials have modelled the future and discovered there is still enough benefit to the company after conceding at least half the global market to truly open standards.

Caveat Emptor.

November 18, 2005

Have You Seen MIT's Home Page Lately?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has the coolest Home Page since asciipr0n...and it changes frequently, highlighting the amazing and unusual creativity there.

One day it even had clickable duct tape. What will they think of next, a 100-dollar laptop?

The Little Green Laptop that Could

Solveig has a nice post with good links to this minor story.

And Nick Negroponte is Person of the Week. When it's time for individuals to pledge a laptop, I'll let you know.

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen...

...with your harbor lights...

If you're as curious as I am about the progress of the OpenDocument, XML file format discussions that are certainly going on in other countries, John Gotze's blog, Gotzeblogged, offers a pleasant view of Denmark.

November 14, 2005

A Vista by Any Other Name...

...would be a mirage.

Because it keeps receding into the distance.

November 13, 2005

Who's Collecting OOo/ODF Case Studies?

Who is collecting OpenOffice case studies in a simple, one-stop tabular format like tracks Linux adoptions?

Is it going to be the OpenOffice Newsletter? The Marketing Project? The OpenDocument Fellowship? LXer itself?

With the advent of the release of OpenOffice2 and milestone adoption cases like the State of Massachusetts' policy declaration for OpenDocument, there is about to be a cavalcade of adoptions and a great demand for leaders in potential organizations to point to a single source of support for their Open Source / Open Standard argument. The state of information on OOo/ODF adoption is diffuse to say the least, and there needs to be a single site for authoritative refernences.

My Recommended Format

The "OpenOffice/OpenDocument Case Study Database" that I recommend could be started on a simple spreadsheet and adapted to HTML in a simple content management system. Columns would look something like this:

Adopting Entity | Type of Entity | Country | City/State | Number of PCs Affected | What is Being Adopted | Contact | URL | Comments

Sample Entries

1. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ITD & Executive Branch agencies | State Government | USA | Boston, MA | 50,000 | 2.0 on Windows (various) | Peter J. Quinn, CIO | URL| 90,000 users affected

2. Swadelands School | Education | England | Maidstone, Kent | etc. etc.

Here's a simple project through which students anywhere in the world can start contributing to open source & open standards. If anyone is interested in compiling this information, I will refer you to the leaders of the communities that move first.

November 11, 2005

Ustinov, Apropos of Me

As if the Websters people were reading PlexNex, they give us Peter Ustinov for Quote of the Day:
In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from.

November 10, 2005

ODF's Family Secret

In places like Massachusetts, competition has been mentioned as one of the desirable results of adoption of OpenDocument (results of the release of Microsoft's choke-point on the file format), but the context is usually theoretical and general, as in, "The tax-payers will enjoy the fruits of better competition in the technology industry."

If there are unsaid things in the ODF conversation so far, it's that vendors who've been locked out of the office suite market now smell the gamey new opportunity. While they are talking, and that makes news, they are also working. They're going two routes simultaneously:
1) discussing collaborative ways to ensure OpenDocument's success, globally; and
2) separately developing competitive new products or shoring up existing ones.
OpenOffice/StarOffice are the fat-client apps that are ready for dinner today. They, by fact of history, will be the principal way OpenDocument establishes its first beachheads in organizations. It's my bet that MS Office 12 ½ - for those with the expendable dosh - will be in this catagory soon enough, too, because that's Ray Ozzie's vision.

In the new & different column, IBM's Lotus Workplace, Google's AJAX thingy (I don't know this, officially), Writely, Firefox's inevitable OpenDocument Reader Plug-In and Microsoft's Office Live will alight under the catagory, “Web 2.0.”

The real fallout from the repositioning of the game board – which is suddenly no longer so slanted that all the jacks, the dice and the small colored plastic rabbits & horses funnel into Bill Gates' daipered lap - is the palpable sense of opportunity; you can feel it not by what the vendors are saying but by what we know they are doing back at the skunk works: Adobe, CA, Corel, Google, hp, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Novell, Oracle, Red Hat Scalix & Sun Microsystems, you can hear the resources being shuffled. OpenDocument has been visible to the vendors since OpenOffice went public (2002), but Massachusetts made large-scale adoption visible and believable. (Sun Tsu has looked down and smiled upon the better positioning of the open source/open standards Phalanx.)

Competition, if it's true, creates the situation where we'll be identifying usage patterns and gathering user requirements in a more granular way than before because suddenly more resources are visible in the space and vendors and open source developers alike will be trying to outdo each other.

The original Microsoft focus groups divided users into General | Finance | Managers | Communicators | Database Users | Complete Idiots; that's how we got Word | Excel | Powerpoint | Outlook | Access | Bob & the Paperclip. Fine. That was then. It was also based on Microsoft's reaction to discrete use patterns developed from the early application successes, Lotus & WordPerfect among others, under different resource conditions.

Now, it's our luxury to see a nuanced palette. We have users of type Read-Only | Read-Mostly | Edit Sometimes | Extra Hot Sauce, Please | Simple Memos & Letters | Thick Documentation with Indices | MailingList Mama | PowerMarketing Survey Fu | James Bond | Finance Simpleton | Finance ÜberGeek | BlackBelt, Waitress & Serial Killer. And now there are more & smarter minds looking at the challenge of serving these different user-types, each looking from a slightly different angle.

If modularizing the office suite and breaking it down further does actually make sense, then no one needs to load a one-size-fits-all chunk of 10 million lines of code just to see what's for dinner. And Web-ification here helps. The particular tools I need can be pulled in just like I add feeds to my Personalized Homepage, or I can simultaneously co-edit a document in ways that recently were impossible, painful or required a long expensive flight on an aeroplane. That makes me faster, smarter and lighter on my feet, saving room for the Apple Pie a la Mode.

Competition on ODF-capable apps will be good for users (depending upon what's on their plate). Already, you can see this is not a theoretical notion.

November 07, 2005

Politics & the Perversion of Standards

Another keeper from David Berlind, this is a selective transcription of the Massachusetts Senate hearing last Monday (Halloween, one week ago today, October 31, 2005). The annotated commentary from DB is edifying.

I remember when David was willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt but you can tell he's really mad now because the language and logic of Marc Pacheco betray his meritless agenda against competition, choice and innovation as he drives forward the stall machine on OpenDocument.

Playwrite Michael Frayne (Copenhagen, Democracy) once said that he learned a lot from the work he did translating Chekhov (that plot is everything).

One way to map the mind of a man is through transcribing several hours of his inaudible conversation. Surely the transcription gives David (now us) a unique grasp of the Pacheco synaptic landscape and the circumstantial (dis)connectons which betray a knowledgable, cynical coach hiding in the wings talking into a wire.

Microsoft's Nervous ehm...Twitch

Dan Farber writes in Between the Lines about Microsoft's new software development metaphor, the Twitch Cycle.

Short Twitch (6-9 months)
Medium Twitch (12-24 months?)
Long Twitch (3-4 years)

Said Ballmer:
We just can’t make our customers wait three or four years for things [Longhorn/Vista] that should have been on more interim cycles. We try to orchestrate ourselves, so that we have innovations coming on all three of those cycle paths.
With major open source development projects on a "release early and often" cycle path and projects like Ubuntu bringing out a new version every six months -- in April and October -- like, on a Swiss train schedule, Microsoft appears to be taking on board the lessons of Open Source & Free Software's collaborative development successes.

I've been arguing recently (to deaf ears) that if Microsoft wants to be an open source company, it will need to go all the way and generate sincere and passionate communities. They will only be able to do this if Ballmer and Gates retire early because the sine qua non, the mortar, of community is trust.

November 06, 2005

Run That By Me Again?

The Senate hearing last Monday on the MassGov OpenDocument policy betrayed the glaring misprision by some people of the lingua franca of our open standards conversation.

Whether or not state Senators and other representatives have a sincere interest in understanding the subject at a basic human or technical level, the responsibility falls to the cognoscenti to fill in the blanks.

Here's a tiny sample from Massachusetts Senator Pacheco's interrogation of Peter Quinn:
Q: Why did you correct yourself about "open source?"

A: Open Standards can be implemented in open source or in proprietary software.

Q: So let me see if I understand. Isn't ODF distributed under something called the GPL?
(Andy Updegrove provided the full transcription)

Below, here's a little FAQ which I have already submitted to the OpenDocument Fellowship and which I hope people will generally feel free to improve, duplicate or extend to their own contexts.

1. What is the difference between a software license (the GPL, LGPL or EULA, for example) and a software standard specification (OpenDocument, for example)?
A license states the terms of distribution and use of a certain organization of code (software product), whereas a standard specification is a document which lays out the design rules and interface characteristics of a common data format, language or communications protocol (some kind of standard) and how other code can interact with it.

A standard specification like OpenDocument is not code, it is a document (OASIS holds the copyright to the OpenDocument Specification document itself) and is not distributed under a license. It is a design plan that is implemented by software. Nor is the license of a standard-deploying software application relevant to the standard itself. [Note: I amended this paragraph when David Berlind's excellent annotated transcript of the Massachusetts Senate hearing pointed out that I was roughly as clueless as Senator Pacheco about the relationship between standards and software. -SH (11/7/2005)]

2. What is the paradox of the GNU General Public License ("the GPL"), the most widely used of the so-called Open Source or Free Software licenses? Why is it so hard to understand from different points of view?
The paradox of the GPL is that while it indicates sharing behavior (which is generally considered to be a liberal or open type of behavior) it simultaneously offers strict limitations and rigorous precision as to the degree of the sharing behavior permitted.

The GPL for example is known for enforcing the free sharing and collaborative improvement of software code; however, the GPL does not permit anything but sharing. That license therefore is considered highly restrictive.

The language one chooses to describe the GPL, for example -- i.e., 'open' versus 'restrictive' -- will depend upon the dominant relationships the speaker may have to interests in software development and objectives in design and dissemination of the software; that is, it will depend on personal attitude, political persuasion, wind direction and context of the conversation.

3. What is the difference between the GPL and the Lesser GPL?
The thing about software code is that people like to reuse old code to do new things by attaching pieces together (old with old, old with new, etc.) to perform new or expanded tasks. Code reuse is one of the attractive labor efficiencies in the digital life.

Roughly speaking the GPL is "unfriendly" to proprietary software code because it would cause any proprietary code that is attached to some set of GPL code to become free, to be implicitly attributed a new free license that the proprietary code could never "shake off" after the fact.

The LGPL permits non-free code (code which has restrictive distribution characteristics) to be included with GPL code (at compile-time) without requiring a new free license to be attached by implication to the proprietary code.

Individuals or companies which own blocks of software code and who wish to preserve their own set of certain distribution limitations on that code are attracted to using the LGPL to distribute the combined code because it allows them to retain control of the code they attach -- perhaps for other purposes on another day. OpenOffice is a good example of a product that uses the LGPL; this is done to attract proprietary extensions to the free code-base with the goal of enriching the market of product options and vendors competing on their ability to add value to a common base of open source code.

Value judgments get attached to GPL code as being 'open' or 'better' and proprietary code as being 'closed' or 'having weakness.' While quality is always intrinsic to the code itself, the sense of 'open is better' exists because broadly collaborative code development methodologies have been demonstrated in the recent decade to produce some powerful results including GNU Linux, Apache, Firefox.

This particular value judgement has been substantiated in certain prominent examples in recent history in which open source code which has "proprietary dependencies" becomes suddenly unusable because the entity owning some part or parts of the whole changes its behavior in some way (not always of its own volition). Thus, proprietary dependencies are ceteris parabis to be generally avoided with discipline. Yet there remain instances in which GPL code is impractical or impossible to implement due to the realities of legacy systems which are intolerant of GPL-based systems.

4. What is the difference between OpenDocument and OpenOffice?
OpenDocument is a technical specification for the design of a group of file formats while OpenOffice is an office suite application such as which is installed into an operating system to enable a user to create, read or edit files.

A file (and the format of that file) is physically distinct from the application which creates it, opens it, saves it, adds things (text or other such elements) to it or takes things (text or other such elements) out of it.

This is the difference between a file (data, the thing created, altered, sent or manipulated) and an application (the organized code, the software tool which acts upon the data).

Confusion may arise in the minds of the general public because in the present circumstance with which many people are most immediately familiar there is no distinction made that is obvious as to the separateness of file and application.

Perhaps you can see in this context that OpenDocument is pioneering, forcing, a natural progression toward data being handled independently from applications. It's the way it should be: access to data in documents should be analogous and equivalent to the level of free access we enjoy today to all the data contained in the many Web pages on the Internet. The wide popular deployment of OpenDocument would right the present restriction of access in the document field.

November 03, 2005

Open-Standard Deja Vu at Harvard's Berkman Center

Back on Thursday (October 27, 2005) -- only one week ago, today, but what seems like years in OpenDocument-time -- a group of standards experts met in a room at the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for the Interenet & Society to talk about file format standards and the present situation in Massachusetts.

I'm offering a selective transcription of some of the high points in the first hour of proceedings and welcome others to do the second hour somewhere. Certainly anyone interested in this topic should be encouraged to listen to the recording -- if you have 2 hours to spare.

dramatis personae

Steve Bratt
COO of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

Doug Levin
CEO of Black Duck Software

Tim Bray
Director of Web Technologies, Sun Microsystems

Bob Sutor
Vice President of Standards & Open Source, IBM

John Palfrey
Executive Director, The Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for the Internet & Society

Opening remarks of the panelists came first.

Steve Bratt:

Dr. Bratt describes how the Internet developed out of open standards.
“In our case, for the things we do – the foundational specifications of the Web – that's a good business model, that by spreading out and reducing the encumbrances on specifications that we do you enable the more rapid expansion and growth of those technologies and then enable commerse or communication on top of those things, whether it's commercial software or open source.”

“We also care about make sure our standards work together...accessibility...internationalization...”

Doug Levin:

Gives a concise description of Black Duck's business model.

Tim Bray:

Desktop has 2 problems:

1) it costs too much; and
2) it's not very innovative

Need to open up a truly competitive marketplace; we need completely unencumbered file formats.

“The lifespan of information is immensely larger than the life of any particular iteration of software technology. And particularly in the public sector, where the relationship between a citizen and a government is measured in decades -- and not a small number of decades, either -- this is just immensely longer than any software has been observed to live and so we shouldn't count on history suddenly changing itself.”

Bob Sutor:
“We're at an inflection point.”

How can you tell well you look around...tells the story of overhearing a young lady at Walmart telling her mom about OpenOffice: 'Well there's the pull it down from the Web and it's free and it does all the stuff: wordprocessing, spreadsheets & presentations...'

“Massachusetts is not an argument between branches of government. There's something fundamental people are questioning about the way we always used to do business and, maybe, need to do in the future.”


John Palfrey:

"The Topic: What's the hard question what is in fact the – forget the politics – what's the hard question here in Massachusetts?”

Morgan Reed
Association for Competitive Technology (ACT)
“Morgan Reed, Association for Competitive Technology. We represent about 3,000 small guys in their garage who haven't seen their wives in six weeks. There have been a lot of good points. When this policy was initially announced, the biggest concern they had was that it seemed 1) to be an elimination of choice; uhm that from their perspective – and these are my friends on the open source side too – was allofasudden you went from being in a position where you were able to argue the technological merits of what you were doing if you were an integrator if you'd built a product for, say 30,000 government employees, that glued different pieces together, uhm, you were now restricted from doing a value-add to say, 'I can take this format and this format.'"

"Uhm, there was a question of loss of choice, was the first merit; the second part was a confusion as to what it meant in terms of uhm why is PDF, you know, what, how does this work because there was this feeling there was a continuum of intellectual property rights, you know, what does this mean for me, what if I innovate on it, what if I create this new idea; then the last big complaint was a feeling that uhm – and you said 'process' – if you want to identify what are the thee things: Choice, Innovation and a feeling that it was untested. Uhm there were concerns that the format was completely untested that none of the integrators had yet even rolled out this solution in terms of marrying various document formats together. There was a feeling that they had no proof of concept; there were some enourmous training costs that were going to be, that they had to deal with. And again you pointed out earlier, you know this question of guys complaining that their business model might be out, that's easy to say and just wing off but it's actually, when it's peoples' jobs and it's people's livelihood, I think it's flip to say that, but it actually has some practical, there are some practical considerations that you have to take into consideration.”

Dan Bricklin
Software Garden
“What spec are they complaining about since the ETRM has a broad scope and the document [file format] piece only came in late? ETRM has been out for many many months, so what specifically are they complaining about.”

A: Morgan Reed: “It was pages 18-21 of ETRM [v3.5].”

Palfrey asks David Berlind to cover his article which Microsoft approached him to write on the Process. See “Microsoft: We were railroaded in Massachusetts”

David Berlind concludes his review by seying that, even if Sun had a unique opportunity to address some IP issues in ODF which MS did not receive [the Sun non-assertion statement was not released until after ETRM v3.5 was finalized], all sense of impropriety goes away because Peter Quinn's group still holds the door open for MS to introduce ODF. PQ: 'We'd be delighted to include MS in procurement if either they opened up their schemas fully or if they adopt ODF in Office.'

David Berlind, returning to Palfrey's initial request:
“The hard question here is 'Why would a vendor be concerned about anything but its right to sell their product to the customer?'”

Berlind: Microsoft's claim of illegal procedure does not address this question as long as Peter Quinn's proverbial door remains open.

Berlind: “Microsoft doesn't need to lift one engineering finger. If they want to check about an illegal procedure in the process, all they have to do is announce that they're going to support ODF 'cause by doing that, if Massachusetts was really against procuring Microsoft's products, it would be forced to scramble and come up with some other way to block Microsoft's products.”

Andy Updegrove
Counsel to OASIS
'We all made the transitions [in the early 1990's] from WordPerfect to Word.'

“Two years from now – if ODF transitions go smoothly – we're going to be wondering, “What were we talking about?”

Morgan Reed
“This is Morgan Reed, ACT. I feel like I'm the only one here who has some concerns. Two follow-ups that I think I wanna go back to: You hit the nail on the head when you said, 'This is the end-all, this is the end. Uhm, this is the end decision. Once and for all,' I think is what you said. That, in a nutshell, from the small innovators technical side is what I see to be the largest problem.”

“Frankly I don't care about Microsoft. If Microsoft chooses to support ODF, fine. But when you say that you want to adopt a standard that is admitedly not state-of-the-art technologically [Sutor interrupts: “NO!”] -- okay but we'll come back to that – you're going to adopt a standard and you're going to say, 'That's it!'”

"Well, my CD player doesn't support wax cylinders for listening to music. Technology will move. Everybody moved from Wordperfect to Word. Why? Well, probably because WordPerfect didn't step up on certain issues that we wanted out of Word -- in some cases – now you'll notice that I'm using a Mac, and I use Pages because I like some of the feature-sets on it. You should not have a situation where the state is locked in – locked in, talk about vendor-lockin – locked in on a standard when a small company might innovate something better. Their choice should be based on, 'What gives us our need?' And the discussion as to whether or not they have access to the data, that's a separate vendor-to-client discussion. And I think that one, and I think the state has an opportunity to say, 'We need – in purpetuity – access to our data.'

Tim Bray
“So. And. I've seen this movie before, and this movie was in the 1980's when you wanted to go buy a network and you could get a Prime network from Prime or an IBM network from IBM or a DEC network from DEC and then ISO was coming along and TCP/IP was coming along and they all said, 'Don't lock us into a standard, you're going to cut off know 'cause innovation happens know...' and that was just completely WRONG!”

“And you know now if you went to the market and introduced a new networking product and said, 'Oh this networking product is incredibly innovative but of course it's only single-vendor.' Well, it's crystal clear to me that a few years from now anybody who comes to market with any product that says Oh, by the way, the file format is proprietary will be locked out of the market for the very same reasons.”

“Now you raised a bunch of issues, a lot of which I think are actually material and worth investing time in. You said one thing: 'By standardizing on a common file format, we're going to reduce choice.'”

“Excuse ME! Choice comes from STANDARDS! Choice comes from COMPETITION! Choice doesn't come from MONOPOLY!”

“I mean you look at the Internet. Look at the Web. Look at the electrical system. Look at the telephone system. These things are based on standards down to the core. Now, compare that to the world of office document software, which is not based on standards and, I ask you, which of those is obviously the least innovative?”

Morgan Reed
“I would just target two things that you said there. You said, 'Obviously.' You used the term of art, 'obviuosly least innovative.' Well, that's absurd on its face because you can't make a determination that it's obviously least innovative in the market-place."

"So let's just take that off the table as being hyperbole and say, 'You don't appreciate the features that they innovate.' Well I don't either; I'm not using it. But that doesn't mean that you can say, 'It is the least innovative,' ipso facto, it is not a fact, okay? And second of all when you talk about that it's interesting to note that you use the electrical system because there actually was some fights over what was the best versions of electricity to use. And when we standardized on it took time and it wasn't actually an open standard. It was a standard that was being pushed by one vendor. So the nation standardized on a single vendor's electrical delivery system, and it was a proprietary one.

Dan Bricklin
“The argument is about the definition of 'open' ...”

“When it comes to the innovation thing, this is not cutting down choice because first of all the particular standard is one that has a lot of latitude in it so there's a lot of room [to innovate].”

“And it just reminds me of the old days when we were doing EBCDIC versus ASCII and a big vendor had EBCDIC – IBM – and then ASCII came in and, you know, eventually ASCII took over by having ASCII and one form of data – now it's been extended to UNICODE – we have one format that everybody uses and it's made all sorts of things possible. But the thing is anybody could use it. So I think we're talking here about degrees of 'open,' about open standards and we should talk about that.”

Bob Sutor
“So as anybody ever raises concerns about these sorts of things, there's another format that's in play here: the new XML format in Office 12, the untested format that is not backward-compatible that will require everybody who has engineered around that base to do new things. Alright. So therefore at that level we can say, 'Well, we've got two formats here.' Alright? We've got a vendor-specific format, developed by a large vendor, admitedly with large market share -- a lot of desktops, if you will -- and you've got the other format which frankly is roughly equivalent, alright, in terms of functionality. What's happening is people saying, 'I'm gonna vote for the open format.' Ya know. Between the two of them, alright, here's the one that's developed by a community by people who have literally decades of experience in doing these things, alright, that's been open to everybody else, that's open in the future to be maintained by everybody else. Anybody can implement this thing. I mean speaking as a vendor, IBM will add support for this in Lotus Workplace. We're doing this right now. We're not going to be the only ones. And so what it's really coming down to is folks saying, 'Look, I've got two choices here.' Alright. One choice is more open, has all of the functionality, has a future that isn't going to be prescribed by just one vendor, shall we say. 'How am I gonna vote, here?'”

“And frankly, if I'm a small company – to be very honest with you – I'm going to vote for a format that, ya know, is done in common, a standard foundation that I can then go and build upon. If I'm a small company that's worried about staying under the wing of a particular vendor [thinking], 'This is where I'm most comfortable, I'm in their ecosystem,' well you're going to make those choices. I mean that's what you do. So there are larger questions here.”

Tim Bray
“You don't standardize what the software DOES. You standardize what the software SAVES. and what the software SENDS. And you would be hard pressed to find [standards] success stories that contravene that simple rule. The place to standardize is on the data.”

Web 2.0 is marketing papp...there's no significant new technology there.

The single thing that's driving innovation now is the standardization of the browsers and plugins around that.

Blogging & syndication IS significant...the Web is becoming a writable medium...RSS...HTML...those are the standards. This is a sociological, cultural change, not a technological change.

Bob Sutor
“If we think of blogging, wikis, now we have a new standard for document formats. Is there something someone can do that's clever on top of that? Does it increase the ecosystem there?”

“So that type of interoperability drives great thoughts on top because they know they've got the plumbing in place. Whether you call it Web 2.0 or whatever. I mean the type of cleverness we've seen on top of – as you said the HTML, the core Web standards – is exactly what leads to this. It's somebody with a bright idea who says, 'I don't need to reinvent the wheel.' Right? Nobody can say, 'I can't do it. And then I go and I do something interesting.'”

Notes on Mass Senate Hearing

Bob Sutor's keeping a nice running list of links to sources of notes on the Massachusetts Senate's hearing (Monday, Oct 31, 2005) on OpenDocument.

November 02, 2005

Berlind: ODF & Accessibility in Context

David Berlind (ZDNet) has a creditable piece asking 4 important questions about software accessibility for the disabled in its context within MassGov ITD's OpenDocument policy.

Worth a peek.