Friday, June 08, 2007

Politics is only part of the problem

ComputerWorld: Microsoft legislatively TKO’s open document formats. At least stateside. by ZDNet's David Berlind -- ComputerWorld has a five-page report this morning detailing how Microsoft has managed to score a technical knockout of open document formats (not necessarily the OpenDocument Format) in five out of six states. The story sheds a bit of light on how closely (and in some cases quickly) vendors are working with legislators to sway public [...]

Sorry David, politics is only a small part of the problem.

The question we should be asking is why State CIO's and IT divisions are not backing the legislative proposals? It's not the lobbying that is killing ODF. It's the lack of support from IT departments responsible for the challenge of implementing ODF solutions if the legislation is ever approved. The silence of the CIO's is deafening.

One has to wonder why? I've had more than a few conversations with CIO's and their IT warriors, and there is no lack of enthusiasm for ODF. They would implement ODF in a heartbeat if they could. No legislative mandate necessary.

Of course, it seems not a week goes by without a major ODF vendor announcing some sweet interoperability - patent protection deal with Microsoft. But where's the beef?

Even at the ISO-OASIS ODF Technical Committee level, where the essence of interoperability with MS Office lays within the broader structural enhancement requirements of "compatibility with existing file formats and application interoperability", these issues have been pushed aside as being "out of bounds", "out of scope", "outside the charter", and "that's a problem for converters and translators-let them solve it".

The marketplace of CIO's and IT warriors in California, Massachusetts, Belgium, Denmark, NATO, and throughout the EU IDABC are consistent in their demands. Provide them the interoperability tools they need to migrate existing documents and business processes to ODF, and it will be done. No legislative mandates needed.

There are three quotes i've seen batted about that pretty much say it all:
  • ...... "Interoperability isn't just a feature. It's the basic requirement for getting your XML file format and applications considered"
  • ...... "The challenge is that of migrating our existing documents and business processes to XML. The question is which XML? OpenDocument or OpenXML?"
  • ....... "Under those conditions, is it even possible to implement OpenDocument?"

The challenge for OpenDocument isn't at the legislative level. Nor is it at the International Standards level. No, the challenge for ODF is at the implementation level where there is a serious lack of MS Office compatibility tools and solutions needed to make that difficult transition to ODF.

So we are left with the real world question of whether or not the "demand side" of the information technology equation can get from where they're at today, 500 million desktops bound to MS Office workgroup-workflow processes, to where they would like to be tomorrow? Which is ODF.

Sadly, ODF doesn't get to start with the world as a clean slate. Otherwise this decision would be simple and done. With no amount of political lobbying able to stop real world uptake. ODF wouldn't even need legislative proposals.

But that's not the case. Hardly. With upwards of 500 million workgroup desktops bound to MSOffice bound business processes, we are a long way from the 1995 office suite "feature set" wars of yesteryear. All the new and innovative features sets in the world aren't going to help ODF office suite applications crack into those MS Office bound business processes. What's needed instead is an all out - no compromise focus on compatibility, interop, and convergence issues.

The documents and business processes that make these critical day to day workgroup-workflow tasks possible are going to transition to XML. The question is, "Which one? ODF or MS OOXML?"

Where the rubber meets the road, the challenge for ODF is that of matching doc for doc, proc for proc, the non disruptive cost Microsoft offers with their OfficeOpenXML plugin.

The real world doesn't have the luxury of evaluating OpenDocument and OfficeOpenXmL based on the expert level of proper XML, open standards governance, IPR encumbrances, or reuse of existing XML standards. No, instead they have a bigger problem of getting existing documents and business processes into XML. And from there they can move into SOA, SaaS, and the Web 3.0.

So CIO's are forced by the everyday reality of MSOffice bound business processes to demand from ODF solutions three primary characteristics:

  • .... Compatibility with existing file formats (MS Binaries/HTML/XHTML/RTF)
  • .... Interoperability(application level - including existing apps like MSOffice!)
  • .... Convergence (the portable XML document as the end user interface into information systems that span desktop-server-device-web)..... If your tied to the desktop, you're dead. But if your an XML file format tied instead to something like the Vista Stack, well, you've got a shot as long as the other guy remains a no show.
  • .... Harmonization (the worst of all compromises; the successful implementation of the above three characteristics, but on terms dictated by MOOXML.

These are serious questions the ODF community has to come to terms with if the demand side of the equation is to have some sort of choice other than OfficeOpenXML.

That's not to say that the demand side is sitting still. No way. Check out the EU IDABC "Advanced eGovernment" Conference held February 28th-March 1st, 2007 in Berlin. They've got their own "optimized for interoperability" proposal known as ODEF - The Open Document Exchange Format.

You've got to read this stuff to believe it. No big vendors need apply. No ISO either! I take that as a swipe at both the big vendor standards consortia, OASIS and ECMA.

The EU IDABC has even gone so far as to identify the "interoperability break points" that can be found throughout ODF and OpenOfficeXML: the "optional" methods of implementation.

There is a famous quote from the infamous Doc Searls that goes like this, "Open source is where the demand side has taken over their own supply".

Could it be that we are now witnessing the same thing with Open Standards? One has to wonder.

Meanwhile though, The OpenDocument Foundation has made the decision to go with the marketplace - to stick with the demand side. If the EU gives us the ODEF spec, we'll provide them with an ODEF version of our da Vinci plugin for MSOffice. As applications (and application converters :)) move to ODEF, i have no doubt OpenDocument will jump to make whatever compatibility-interop-convergence changes needed. And that would be a good thing.

A very good thing,

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