DIS29500: Just Say No

Sunday, 2008-March-16 at 12:00

There are many, many reasons why OOXML as it currently exists should not be accepted as an international standard, but I just wanted to reach back into the past to recall one of the most important.

From Stephen Walli [emphasis mine]:

The reality is probably closer to an arrogance towards standards in general from the perspective of setting them and of their customers’ desires to see them in the industry. Rather than implementing the standard that exists, (and we’ll discuss in the next post why the PR value of this would have been high, while giving them maximum implementation freedom), they have chosen to try to confuse the market by offering up their own standard.

They are trying to maintain the aura of standardization, while maintaining maximum control of what they perceive to be their property. After promising to publish the patent license in the early part of the announcement, it has since turned into a statement that the covenant not to sue implementers on top of the original patent license is all they will be doing. So the legal ambiguity begins.

Some recent restatements of their Open Specifications Pledge might alter things a little, but the Software Freedom Law Center does not think so:

There has been much discussion in the free software community and in the press about the inadequacy of Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) as a standard, including good analysis of some of the shortcomings of Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise (OSP), a promise that is supposed to protect projects from patent risk. Nonetheless, following the close of the ISO-BRM meeting in Geneva, SFLC’s clients and colleagues have continued to express uncertainty as to whether the OSP would adequately apply to implementations licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). In response to these requests for clarification, we publicly conclude that the OSP provides no assurance to GPL developers and that it is unsafe to rely upon the OSP for any free software implementation, whether under the GPL or another free software license.

What value does a standard have for customers? There are a few, primarily around predictability and multiple implementations. As Stephen Walli said: “Let’s go back to first principles on this one. The economic purpose of a standard is to enable multiple implementations. Standards enable product substitutions to be made.”

In other words, standardization is for the time when customers want to have a choice of multiple vendors, while still being assured that the products will work in a predictable fashion, which is especially important in a mix-and-match environment. In a single-vendor environment, having a standard is of no consequence, because everything is focused around that single vendor's products anyway.

Let's ask the relevant question, then. If Ecma 376 / OOXML is approved as an ISO standard, will companies and consumers be able to substitute Brand X for the name brand office suite, assuming that Brand X conforms to the standard? If not, then the whole process is a sham and DIS29500 should be rejected out of hand.

Further, I suggest that if OOXML is rejected as an ISO standard, Microsoft and Ecma will fix many of the biggest flaws and resubmit it under a more normal evaluation process. They may even release the standard under a FLOSS-safe IP pledge. Contrary to what some may think, this is not anti-Microsoft or even necessarily anti-OOXML. It is anti-rubber-stamped standards and anti-obfuscated-formats-and-mappings standards, while being pro-safe-to-implement standards.

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