Sunday, March 23, 2008

On Bullshit and Billy Clubs

Reading the blogosphere lately has been quite interesting. With regards to commentary about Open XML, an old principle seems to be taking over. That as the emotion level of a discussion rises, the reason contained therein decreases in an exponential inverse proportion. I continue to be amazed at how a discussion around a file format can generate so much hysteria. It really is proof positive that the train has gone right off the rails, is flying through the air, and quite soon may end up crashing through your house and ruining dinner.

The problem with words is that they can be twisted in so many different ways. Sentences can be mangled by people in order to make anything fit their own agenda. Take, for example, the recent blogosphere exchange between Doug Mahugh and Yoon Kit. Apparently, Doug was trying to attend a recent Malaysian standards meeting discussing Open XML at the request of the International Association of Software Architects. He seems to have been thrown out of the room since he was not officially designated as an alternate of that organization. Reading his original blog post, he makes clear that he was attending as a technical resource to the committee, in order to answer any technical issues that may come up in what was supposed to be a technical meeting. This is not unusual, and is done regularly by standards committees around the world on a daily basis. However, that didn’t happen as he was thrown out on some sort of silly semantic issue after IBM and Yoon Kit objected. I find that interesting for a process that is supposed to be “open.”

About national interests, they are a funny thing. I believe it was Charles de Gaulle who once said, “No nations has friends, only interests.” I choose to believe that Yoon Kit’s interests in this debate are actually selfless. That he sees himself, and truly believes, that what he is doing is for the greater good of Malaysia. On a side note, I have a great deal of respect for Malaysia. I believe their Vision 2020 is a shining beacon for the Asian continent, and that Malaysia will become a great leader in that part of the world. But only if they do not allow their trajectory to be hijacked by partisans whose interest, though meant in the best of intentions, is still misguided. Whose efforts and energies are directed in such a way as to knock a nation off course.

If this debate about Open XML was really about national interests, then it would have been over a long time ago. Let’s break down what national interests we are talking about here:

1) An opportunity to bring intellectual property utilized by Microsoft in the most popular productivity applications ever built into the purview of nations rather than vendors;
2) The ability to bring all of the legacy data that governments and citizens have put into documents over the last 20 years out of the past, into the present and on to the future;
3) The chance to drive economic development and innovation across a national IT sector.

On point 1), many governments, developers and users have long clamored for a seat at the table with Microsoft. Long accused of being heavy-handed and close-minded in its development approach, Microsoft has taken the singular step of actually committing the current and future development of its Office product to intellectual property that is in the public domain. Although the developer of the original Open XML specification, nobody could accuse Microsoft of being the sole creator of what has resulted through over two years of further development work in Ecma and ISO. The specification that has resulted is truly the collaborative work of a global community, and reflects the talents and foibles of that community. We should not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Notice I specifically used the article “a” rather than “the.” There is no such thing as “the” global community, in IT or otherwise. Anyone who suggests such is either a liar or a fool, and neither should be tolerated.

Governments have a unique responsibility, in that they are the stewards of a national legacy. They alone are responsible for keeping the most sacred and important data of a civilization and ensuring that it is preserved and accessible for the current citizenry as well as countless generations to come. Imagine if the great Library at Alexandria had the archiving and accessibility capabilities then that even the most simple computer has today. If the Dead Sea Scrolls had been digitized, rather than stored in clay pots in a cave, hidden for centuries. The detractors of Open XML have a bad memory which as a historian I find insulting. The plain and simple fact is that vast amounts of data are stored in MS Office documents, and national interests require, indeed demand, that Open XML be brought under the authority of an international body.

Governments also have a responsibility to ensure that their people are not only able to give themselves the basic necessities of life, but also for creating an environment in which citizens can achieve their dreams. This is the sacred trust between government and its citizenry that countless historical luminaries have spoken of for generations. Judging by the widespread adoption of Open XML by supporters and detractors alike, it is quite obvious that there is value in Open XML, and that its future holds the promise of opportunity for developers around the world.

As a standards junkie, it is quite obvious that the discussion of Open XML has gone “off the reservation.” It is apparent that the dialogue is no longer rightly about the technical merits of a specification, but wrongly a referendum on a vendor and a process. All of the distracting babble about the fast-track versus the “normal” SC-34 process is nothing more than nonsense, hogwash and poppycock. The fast-track was designed to address IT issues that if left to a longer process would make the eventual standard irrelevant, as information technology develops much faster than concrete and electrical sockets. In a world where, for example, the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles every two years, how can a standards process that takes 3-5 years be expected to cope? Those who say that how we store and represent our data should wait five years until they’ve had “enough time” to examine the technology are nothing less than modern Philistines, imposing some sort of subjective code of principles on an unsuspecting world. This is why 104 member countries are given the opportunity to examine the spec, under the premise that not everyone can be experts on all things but that together they catch most everything. To be perfectly clear, there is no downside to ISO adoption of Open XML. Any remaining issues can be addressed in SC-34 maintenance, where the future evolution of ISO document standards will be done, and rightly so. In light of this, any failure of the international community to bring Open XML into ISO is ruinous and self-defeating.

As for the issue of the specification being 6,000 pages, I think it is important to note that the original intellectual property turned over by Microsoft to Ecma was only 2,000 pages. It is Ecma who took a year of deliberation to turn it into the larger result we have today. I find the length argument to be specious, and comparisons to the ODF format to be irrelevant. After all, why should Ecma be scandalized for building a specification that people actually use? And make no mistake, people do use it. It is implemented in everything from MS Office, Lotusphere, Open Office, Ubuntu and the iPhone, among many, many others.

Now, onward from the bullshit and on to the billy club. For my non-native English speaking readers, a billy club is (according to Wikipedia) “A club, cudgel, baton, truncheon, night stick, or bludgeon.” There is so much ear-splitting nattering going on about how Microsoft has “gamed the process”, how they are abusing the standards system and bullying the rest of the world into accepting “their” document format. First off, it isn’t their document format; it’s Ecma’s, and ultimately its ours. As an open standard already, I take ownership in the Open XML format. I can implement in my products without asking Microsoft’s permission. I can create software that interoperates with Microsoft Office without ever having a conversation with them. That doesn’t strike me as the behavior of a company that is imposing its will on the world.

Further, I find the argument about Microsoft to be laughable. If Microsoft really had all of this Machiavellian influence as some of the more vocal jesters would have us believe, do we really, as credible thinking individuals, believe that they would be subjecting themselves to the abuse and total crap they have suffered through in the last year and a half? Do we think that highly intelligent people like Doug Mahugh and Brian Jones would open themselves up to accusations of racism and Nazism? That they would in any conscience, good or bad, allow themselves to be lumped into the firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War? To reprise a famous American incident, until this moment I think I never gauged the cruelty or the recklessness of the anti-Open XML crowd. Have you no sense of decency, at long last. Have you no sense of decency?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Quoting From The Right Rulebook

There seems to be a lot of discussion in the past week about some apparent deviation from the ISO rules for the Open XML standardization process. It again amazes me that in the one breath some people are howling their decades of experience in international standards and in the next breath are demonstrating that they have no idea what they are talking about.

Several times now I have seen complaints that the O member countries who participated in the BRM in Geneva should not have been allowed to participate in the vote, because under ISO rules, only P member countries have the right to vote. What this simple and seemingly common-sense statement doesn't do is recognize that ISO/IEC are using the JTC 1 Directives, and the rules outlined therein, in order to administer this process. Under those rules, all countries participating in the BRM have the right to participate fully in the process, including any voting that occurs. This was stated rather bluntly up front by the BRM Convenor during the Head of Delegation pre-meeting, so should not have come to any surprise to delegates attending the BRM. Since the O countries who attended did participate as fully as their mandates allowed them to, this seems to not have been an actual problem in the BRM itself, but rather a great bone to chew on for those who want to practice the art of propaganda.

My advice: Take some time and read JTC1 Directives, Section 13, and all (or as much as possible) will become clear.

On an amusing note, many of these same people who are decrying the fact that these O member countries should not have been allowed to vote, are also among the rather loud voices complaining that all nations were not heard and that the smaller countries did not get an opportunity to participate fully. Seems pretty hypocritical to me, and I wonder if the Greek National Body, among others, understand that they are being consoled to their faces by the same people looking to slip a procedural knife in their back.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Playing Fast and Loose

After spending the last several months reading what a lot of people have to say about the effort to obtain ISO adoption of the Open XML document format as an international standard, I’ve decided it is time for me to have my own say. I must point out that the views contained in the writings on this blog are my own, not influenced by any other party, and are expressed under a nom de plume, in a great and respected tradition followed by many of history’s great luminaries and dissidents.

I define myself as a dissident as meaning, in some definitions, characterized by departure from accepted beliefs or standards. Judging by much of the commentary floating around regarding Open XML, I think it is most certainly fair to say that my views depart quite sharply from the opinions being put forth as common and accepted “wisdom.” Especially following last week’s Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva, it is quite amazing at the propaganda that is being repeated as if it were gospel. I have watched the Open XML standardization process over the last year and a half rather dispassionately. Seeing it for what it is, which is a long accepted and well-defined process that has resulted in thousands of international standards being created over the years. The great thing about processes such as the one that ISO administers, especially those that have passed the test of time, is that they generally work and tend to be tamper-proof. The idea that any one not-so-disinterested party can unduly influence the process is quite laughable. However, since ISO and IEC are not doing a particularly effective job of defending the credibility of themselves and their process, I feel a need to speak up.

The interesting thing about open processes is that fools speak with the same weight as sages. I see the loudest and most off-base criticism coming from individuals who profess to have great experience in international standards, but for all their verbosity I am left wondering why in God’s name they still get paid by anyone to be involved in a process they obviously do not understand or respect. Because that is the cold hard truth folks: Everyone is getting paid by someone to do standards work. If we move forward from this immutable truth, the next question that comes to mind is, who is accepting extra perks for their work, and then not disclosing this when they voice their opposition to Open XML? With all of the eyes on this process, nobody seems to come up with any credible accusations of misdeeds by pro-Open XML partisans at the BRM, but nobody even tries to expose those national body delegates who stayed in hotel rooms at the Intercontinental Hotel, secured by the corporation bankrolling the anti-Open XML camp. Those same delegates that then expressed opposition to Open XML, even when it caused them to stray outside the mandate given them by their national bodies, and breaking the long-honored confidentiality rules of ISO itself.

There are a lot of voices in this debate. The loudest come from individuals opposed to Open XML, for commercial reasons and otherwise. Much of the post-BRM commentary comes from individuals who speak for themselves but wrongly cloak themselves in the legitimacy of their national bodies. What gets missed in this emotional free-for-all is that several national bodies have released official statements professing their satisfaction with the process. Sovereign nations such as New Zealand, Denmark and Norway, along with ISO and the BRM convener themselves have all publicly stated their comfort in the way the BRM was conducted. Even the ODF Project Editor, arguably not disposed to support another document format, has publicly stated that he supports ISO adoption of Open XML.

There is also a lot of bandying about of the numbers. 70% this and 80% that. There’s a great saying that if you torture numbers, they’ll confess to anything. Such is the case here. Anti-Open XML partisans claim that 80% of the dispositions at the BRM were not even discussed and were accepted by ballot. But they fail to point out that there were other options put on the table to deal with the high number of dispositions, and that none of the alternatives was remotely popular. They also fail to point out that delegations could, and did, pull out specific issues of concern that were treated as exceptions to their ballot. These same partisans complain loudly that national bodies could not be expected to be experts on all of the dispositions at hand. But fail to recognize that nobody ever expected them to. Delegations were supposed to be experts on the issues of importance to them, and with more than 100 people in the room, there can be a high level of comfort that each disposition received due diligence from national bodies, and that with such a high volume of discussion, nothing was rubber-stamped. Further, it is fairly disingenuous to claim that the addition of a comma required the same scrutiny that accessibility concerns did. Each national body got multiple chances to raise issues they were concerned about, and they did. Issues such as accessibility, splitting the specification into multiple parts, and issues with the schema were discussed at length, and viable compromises were reached.

I get rather aggravated by some of the voices out there who like to contrast the process of ODF standardization and Open XML. It might make an interesting case study if it was in any way relevant, and if those voices were giving us the whole truth. They like to point out that ODF “sailed” through the ISO process, and that no BRM was even needed. What they don’t tell us is that there were several countries that voted approval with comments, under the impression that those comments would be addressed before final adoption. Then when the shenanigans were finished, and a BRM was determined unnecessary, those same national bodies ended up with a standard that did not address their concerns. These national bodies are now understandably hesitant to approve something without ensuring that their concerns are addressed up front, entirely because they got bamboozled by the commercial ODF crowd the last time around.

Now what remains is for national bodies to reconsider their votes from September 2nd, and determine whether to change from Disapproval or Abstain to Approval. While I am sure that the anti-Open XML crowd is busy trying to convince countries that voted to Approve Open XML in September to change to Disapproval, those national bodies should be wary. There is only one example of a vote changing from Approve to Disapprove in all of ISO history, and it would be inappropriate for that to become standard practice now (pun intended). In all fairness, some national bodies may feel that not all of their concerns were addressed adequately. But they should measure that against the importance of having a widely used document format in the ISO and not controlled by a single entity. They should weigh the significance of having a say in the future development of that specification, against the tendency to desire immediate gratification. I am quite content to continue to watch this process, and hope that whatever results is from a fair process, not influenced by emotion or issues that have no business in a standards discussion.

On a final note, there is a lot of the word “shame” being thrown around in this post-BRM period. Those loud partisans throwing invective and accusations at Microsoft for having the temerity to support something through the ISO process. For being consistent in its support for something it obviously values and believes in. For allowing the world to finally have a voice in how it develops the technology that holds the vast majority of the world’s data. Shameful indeed. My simple advice to those who use that word is: Look in the mirror. Microsoft has done nothing but be transparent in its efforts, and in so doing has honored the ISO process and shown a great deal of respect to the whole world. Those who attack the process, the company and the document format, while cloaking themselves in what is obviously ineffective years of experience, have been the most shameful and damaging of all.

Sorry for the length of this blog post. I had a lot on my mind. I plan to post occasionally, and whenever the mood strikes me. Please feel free to comment. I believe that lively discussion and open discourse generally lead to the best outcomes. If you decide to make a post, please take note that histrionics and bad grammar won’t be tolerated. Show some respect for yourself and others if you decide to speak here.

P.S. I think everyone involved in this discussion owes Alex Brown a big round of thanks. He had a tough job to do, and by all accounts I’ve heard was a smashing success as BRM Convenor. Alex, I hope you get to see this. Well done!