Foundation Passes

Tuesday, 2007-December-11 at 21:56

NOTE: This article has been in the works for some time.  Although I consider it still unfinished, I am publishing it now.

I have been relatively silent recently.  This is because of two things: I have been a little busy at work, and I have not and do not want to get involved in the dispute that led the OpenDocument Foundation to change its focus and dissolve itself.


I'm seeing that SharePoint is getting a little traction in some enterprises.  So I can definitely agree that there is more than meets the eye in the competition between office file formats.  I am also not involved in the meetings in which the file formats and their requirements are discussed.

I do believe that a "rip and replace" strategy is best where it can be accomplished.  If even one in three or four enterprises replaces their monopoly-produced office suite with competitors that natively speak and understand the OpenDocument Format, the monopoly's power to contain people will be broken—freedom to use any office suite leads to freedom to use any client-side operating system, which leads to freedom to use any vendor's server software.

And yet, many PHBs ("Pointy-Haired Bosses", from a character in the Dilbert comic strip) will simply continue to prefer the monopolist's products until the market shifts underneath their feet and they have to change in order to communicate effectively with the rest of the market.

There may be some good to be gained from including some more "round-tripping" extensions in the standard.  Not because it is at all beneficial for "interoperability", but because it gives ODF-implementing tools the ability to preserve unknown format details (that is, "dark matter") in the monopolist's legacy formats, so that files can be edited in ODF-implementing tools without losing edits made with monopolist-tools. 


My understanding is that OASIS has approved some such extensions, but their focus is on enabling applications to interoperate, not on encapsulating monopolist's secret sauce format details within a supposedly open standard format.  After all, that is what Office Not-so-open XML (OOXML) exists to do: create a supposedly open file format that still keeps the monopolist's file format details locked away from competitors.

For enterprises using SharePoint with Windows clients running IE and MS Office, there is a whole lot more than a set of file formats that bind things together.  For example, IE can pass Windows login credentials to the server without further intervention by the user, enabling access controls to work transparently.  For many years, "interop" has meant, "this ties more MSFT products together and removes the ability to choose to use a competing product", and this is not an exception.  This would appear to place an obstacle to clients using any non-MS product in their stack. 

While Kurt Cagle shows that W3C CDF may indeed have some unexpected uses, I am still wondering how much data ownership we can retain by encapsulating secret blobs of proprietary goodness inside of any open format, like so much creme filling.  It seems to me that this still restricts the data's full usage to the monopolist's products.  How exactly does this further the goal of making our data vendor-independent?

I think the real danger is that the former foundation members' rhetoric will be used as fuel by the monopolist and its minions (and legions of ISVs and VARs whose future is to join Corel and Netscape as mere shadows of their former selves, but who are so thrilled at the immediate prospect of income from partnership with Microsoft that they ignore their future doom) to continue to promote Not-so-open XML and to oppose the use of OpenDocument Format in such fields as government service, where proprietary blobs should never have been tolerated.  The disagreements that led to the change of focus and dissolution of the foundation may have been intense, but I still see these guys seeking to promote a world in which the end-user is free to choose his or her software according to his / her own preferences, rather than being constrained by any particular vendor's choice of file formats.  I criticize them not; instead I look forward to this new entrant.

Guys: Be sure that your format and tools based upon CDF/WICD will also cleanly work with existing ODF and UOF files.  There is enough ground to take in the battle to restore data ownership to the data's owners that we can all chip in to help accomplish the task.  Further, I urge that you not become anti-ODF, nor continue to allow your words to be twisted by monopoly spinmeisters to say that they had to create Not-so-open XML because the open format could not handle their content.

I do not oppose CDF at all.  I welcome CDF/WICD and look forward to getting to play with the tools, just as I look with interest at PrinceXML.  As locally-installed software begins to fade in importance, these various tools and formats, run from a server, are the future of document composition.  I expect someone to come up with a Firefox extension that natively edits and displays ODF files (.odt documents, .ods spreadsheets, and .odp presentations), and possibly an Apache module to handle other tasks with these files.  Sam, Gary, Marbux, you guys may have jumped a whole generation of software with CDF.

My motivation is to free the end-user from dependence on any particular vendor or application.  There is ample evidence that OOXML does not help achieve that goal–remeber that MSFT currently has a near-monopoly on office software–and hence is opposed to my interests and those of the millions of individuals and businesses and government agencies that use office applications on a day-to-day basis.  I like and use OpenOffice, Symphony, and KOffice, but my goal is not necessarily to promote any of those products, but rather to promote data-ownership and end-user freedom, which can currently be promoted by using and promoting those applications.  I currently believe that OpenDocument Format promotes my goal better than any current or proposed format can or does.  So, while I await the unveiling of the CDF-based format and implementing products, I still believe that ODF remains the best chance for data-ownership and end-user freedom.

I believe that companies like AutoDesk are watching this contest intently, to see whether their monopolies are also likely to be challenged and fall.  If people like Bill Kerr are correct, they are watching the wrong game.

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