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?

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