There are standards and there are standards. They are not all born
What makes one standard open and not another?
Massachusetts, when deciding
to use the OpenDocument Format, as set forth in its Enterprise
Information Technology Architecture (ETRM) document
set the bar here:
[Secretary of Administration
& Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Eric] Kriss emphasized,
however, that the state is not moving to open standards for economic
reasons but to protect the right of the public to open and free access
to public documents for the foreseeable future. "What we've backed away
from at this point is the use of a proprietary standard and we want
standards that are published and free of legal encumbrances, and we
dont want two standards," Kriss said.
A recent statement
by the Governor's office in Massachusetts, expressing optimistic
hopes that Microsoft's Office Open XML document formats will meet
their standard for an "open format" someday raises two questions: Is
the Microsoft covenant not to
sue, assuming it is someday offered for their new version of XML
schemas, and their plans to submit their XML to standards bodies ECMA
and ISO sufficient to meet the Massachusetts requirements for openness?
If so, what are the implications for the Internet? If not, will
Massachusetts decide their bar was set too high, in order to include
Microsoft? If the bar was set too high, which part shall we lop off?
Shall we say the public has no right to open and
free access to documents their tax money paid for?
Massachusetts has a Public
[PDF] that mandates
[PDF] that "all people have an absolute right of access to public
information". The law doesn't distinguish between paper documents and
digital documents. The disabled have a right of access, but so do the
rest of us.
Are proprietary standards acceptable if
nonproprietary, universally available standards are available?
Can a government dictate which operating system you have to
use to access those documents? More pointedly, can it favor one
proprietary vendor and compel citizens to spend money on a proprietary
system, when they already have a perfectly functional operating system
on their computers already?
We already saw in the Katrina disaster
what happens when a government agency enables Windows-only access. I
wrote about that in "When
Open Standards Really Matter: the Katrina Factor", which begins like
this, trying to explain why standards matter:
If you have
any doubts about the direction Massachusetts is following in requiring
open standards for all government documents, consider what happened when
Hurricane Katrina knocked out almost all communications except the
Internet. Cell phones and walkie talkies failed, once again, just as
they did in 9/11, as David Kirkpatrick tells us in an article in
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, much of the regions
communication systems failed or didnt work properly. Water and wind
knocked out power, toppled phone lines, and destroyed cellphone towers.
What systems remained were quickly overwhelmed. When rescue workers did
have working equipment, like walkie-talkies, they often couldnt connect
with others on different communication systems.
Catch that? "On different communication systems." The same thing
happened after the tsunami disaster in Thailand, as a report just
released by the ePolicy Group reports:
"Responding agencies and nongovernmental groups are unable to share
information vital to the rescue effort," the report recalls of the
government in Thailand in the tsunami's immediate aftermath. "Each uses
different data and document formats. Relief is slowed; coordination is
complicated. The need for common, open standards for disaster management
was never more stark or compelling."
Isn't it time, after so much suffering, to recognize that keeping people
alive is more important than allowing private companies to lock in
customers into proprietary systems that don't then work in an emergency?
And why does the Internet always work, no matter who you are or what
operating system you use? Because it was built, not on proprietary
standards, but entirely on open standards. That's why you can send an
email to me, even if you are using Microsoft Outlook. I don't run any
Microsoft products currently, but because of open standards, I can still
read your email, and in an emergency, we will not be disconnected
because we are on "different communication systems."
Accepting Microsoft's proprietary XML *with its proprietary extensions*
as the language of the Internet would certainly alter the openness and
universality of the Internet. Proprietary, by definition, means it
isn't universal. Is that what we want? If Massachusetts accepts
proprietary extensions, it will inevitably be excluding some of its
citizens, I think.
Can any government, including Massachusetts, in
the Internet age, justify telling its citizens, by the decisions it
makes, that they must stop using their operating system of choice --
one used by millions all over the world -- and instead purchase a
proprietary vendor's product instead if they wish to interact with
their government? In any case, in an emergency, it may not be possible
to quickly buy a Windows operating system. People use what they have.
Sometimes it's all they have access to; sometimes it's all they can
afford. On what basis would you argue a government should do that?
More pointedly, on what *legal* basis would you argue they can?
Should Massachusetts wait for a future, yet-to-be-developed
proprietary standard, not yet published, on terms that are not yet
fully known, controlled by a single vendor, when you have one that is
vendor-neutral and is already available? On what basis could the
Commonwealth justify such favoritism to a single company? In the FAQ on
the Commonwealth's ETRM, they state this:
The Final ETRM
Version 3.5 does not require that agencies use only one office product.
To the contrary, it offers agencies many choices. Agencies may choose to
retain their existing MS Office licenses, as long as they use a method
to save documents in Open Document Format. They may also use one of the
many office tools that support Open Document Format in native format---
OpenOffice, StarOffice, KOffice, Abiword, eZ publish, IBM Workplace,
Knomos case management, Scribus DTP, TextMaker and Visioo Writer.
Because the Open Document Format is an open standard, it increases the
vendor pool available to state agencies by encouraging and permitting
vendors not already in this field to develop products that support the
standard. Adoption of the Final ETRM Version 3.5 will greatly
increase competition among vendors for the sale of office applications
What about legal
There are still questions
on the MS XML and related licenses and EULAs. Is that
going to be the part Massachusetts should wink at? They'd likely be
sued if they tried, I think, and I doubt they will try, because it would
be impossible to justify it in public, for one thing. That's the kind
of thing that only works in back rooms, and nothing about this process
will be hidden from the public's gaze.
On the issue of license
clarity, obviously, if you can't understand the license, you won't dare
to use the standard. I don't understand all the legalities of
Microsoft's covenant not to sue and I don't know anyone who does. The
danger is in establishing a standard that would, in effect, block Linux
and GNU/Linux developers from participation. Do you imagine that could
never happen? Consider your history.
Remember the SenderID
flap? Who was to be left out in the EU Commissioner-MS deal?
Do you really want to set up a world where Linux could never happen
again, a world where the Linux we have is exiled to the backwaters of
technology? Just being an ECMA standard doesn't mean it is open
enough for *government* use. ECMA standards, by their own self-description, are for
Ecma is driven by industry to meet the needs
of industry, generating a healthy competitive landscape based on
differentiation of products and services, rather than technology models,
generating confidence among vendors and users of new
The needs of government are not identical
to the needs of industry. It's up to industry to meet the needs of
government, not the other way around. The government is the customer,
after all, so they get to state what they need in a product and to
choose whatever meets their needs best.
Finally, shall we have two standards?
That seems to be
what they are leaning toward. The Commonwealth has already stated that
the disabled can continue to use Microsoft's products, if there are no
better options they like, so that might be one area of carve-out. From
what I've heard, however, that will be a solved problem for ODF by the
time of the 2007 rollout. So again, the issue is going to be: should a
government favor a proprietary solution, when there is a universally
available solution that isn't proprietary and excludes no one? Tim
Bray has made a
The ideal outcome would be a common
shared office-XML dialect for the basicsand it should be ODF (or a
subset), since thats been designed and debuggedthen another extended
vocabulary to support Microsoft features , whether theyre cool new
whizzy features or mouldy old legacy features (XML Namespaces are
designed to support exactly this kind of thing). That way, if you stayed
with the basic stuff youd never need to worry about software lock-in;
the difference between portable and proprietary would be crystal-clear.
And, for the basic stuff that everybody uses, thered be only one set of
This outcome is technically feasible. Who could possibly be against
Let's think about what we should look for in a
standard, what elements justify even calling it a standard. I'd like to
redefine the issue, if I may. I think the sine qua non for a
standard isn't whether it's open or proprietary. If, for example,
Microsoft can open up its XML to match ODF's, that's fine with me. The
real issue isn't openness alone. It's universality. Let me explain.
In trying to understand fully the standards issue in Massachusetts, I
came across a helpful list on Bob Sutor's blog
dating back to September. I hadn't read it, and perhaps you didn't
either, so I'd like to provide here the danger signs that a standard
isn't as open as it needs to be. I think it's pertinent, because
Microsoft folks are telling the world that by applying to ECMA, the
conversation about whether their XML is open enough should be over.
It's only just beginning, actually, as they will discover.
Consequently, let's list the elements Sutor provides that indicate there
is a problem with a standard and you can judge for yourself:
In practice, I think it is probably easiest to tell when a
standards effort is less open than you think it should be. Here are some
control by a single vendor,
- overly complicated license agreements,
- license agreements that reserve certain special rights to
individuals or vendors,
- license agreements that prevent some kinds of implementations,
- overly complicated procedural rules that can allow people to be less
democratic than they should,
- a history of disregard for backward compatibility,
- costs of participation that exclude individuals or small organizations,
- high costs of obtaining copies of the standards,
- standard specifications not being openly available online,
- for XML-based standards, allowance for proprietary, vendor-specific
I see at least 6 items that
would apply to Microsoft's XML. I'm sure I don't have to underline for
you that the last is the deal-breaker, proprietary extensions. It's not
a standard unless it's universally available and usable by everyone. The
whole point of a standard is interoperability. Can everyone use it and
have it work? Proprietary extensions, by definition, hamper
The real question to me isn't just whether a
standard is open. That's a
continuum anyway, with various degrees of openness. The real
question that matters is: is it universal?
Can everyone freely use it? If not, should it be a standard?
XML Standards Impact the Internet, Not Just
When we're talking about XML, we're talking
the Internet, not just about Massachusetts, because XML is the language
of the future Internet. HTML was fine as the universal language for the
Internet for its babyhood, but the future is XML, and so any discussion
about standards for XML involve the Internet too. It's the next step,
because it enables collaborative computing and universal data exchange.
No doubt Microsoft wants its proprietary version of XML to be adopted
as a standard. But seriously, do you want the Internet's common
language to belong, in essence, to one US company? And what a company!
Ask yourself one question, and let your natural, first instinctive
response answer: Do you trust Microsoft?
If you do, kindly tell me
why, in light of their history. This is a company twice found guilty of
antitrust violations, on two continents. What should that tell you?
They had a version of the Internet too, remember? Happily no one was
foolish enough to accept it. The theme of the Internet is universality,
not proprietary walled gardens. Do you remember how Microsoft
added proprietary extensions to HTML and degraded performance for
In the ETRM document, referenced above, the
Commonwealth pointed out something very important:
Initiatives such as Homeland Security rely upon all parties
adhering to Community of Interest XML specifications, defined by open
standards bodies comprised of representatives from Government, Business
and Technology Communities. Open formats for data files ensure that
government records remain independent of underlying systems and
applications thereby preserving their accessibility over very long
periods of time.
Do you really think the Internet
language should be determined by just one US proprietary company
motivated by their own profit? The rest of the world will not go
along with that, even if Massachusetts were to think so. And then how
will they interchange data with countries and governments abroad?
Massachusetts will be odd man out. Accepting Microsoft's version of
XML with its proprietary extensions as the standard will thus result in
serious issues ahead.
The Internet only works well if *everyone*
uses the same language, and frankly, the whole world isn't going to
accept Microsoft's proprietary XML as that common language. Can you
imagine Europe agreeing to that? Or China? Or South America? FOSS
developers? The next question is: Do we want two standards? Two
Internets, in effect? That destroys the very purpose of the Internet,
which is universality. Can there be justification for degrading the
performance of something as important to us as utilities are for the
sole benefit of a single proprietary vendor? I understand why
Microsoft wants that, but why should you?
And there is a choice.
ODF is here right now. There is no pie in the sky about it. It's not a
year away. It's a universal standard, not vendor-controlled, which
everyone can use, including Microsoft, without having to open up in any
We're not just talking about Microsoft and
Massachusetts, then. We're talking about the Internet, which doesn't
belong to any company or any country. It's for everyone, and everyone
uses it. Because it's universally available and usable, shouldn't the
language of the Internet be universal too?
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