It's not about OpenDocument vs MS. It's about open standards.

Summary:In his response to my blog about how open source legal expert Larry Rosen gave his blessings to Microsoft's newest terms for implementing its file formats in third party software, a ZDNet reader asks "David: Why can't you just admit MS did the right thing?" In his comment, he goes on to say "Your prejudice is showing in full force guy.

In his response to my blog about how open source legal expert Larry Rosen gave his blessings to Microsoft's newest terms for implementing its file formats in third party software, a ZDNet reader asks "David: Why can't you just admit MS did the right thing?" In his comment, he goes on to say "Your prejudice is showing in full force guy."

I hope so. 

I have always had a prejudice: the one that favors buyers of technology over the sellers of it.  I think my track record speaks for itself in that I've extolled the virtues of open standards on behalf of what's best for ZDNet's audience members, the majority of which are buyers of enterprise information technology (please see the tagline of this blog's title).   And, to the extent that some or all of ZDNet's readers also buy technology for personal use, I think that my ongoing coverage of digital restrictions management (DRM) is just another validation point regarding whose interests I represent and whether or not I'm prejudiced against any single company. From that coverage, I think it is quite clear that I'm more than willing to go beyond Microsoft in identifying proprietary technologies that could lead to profoundly negative long term consequences -- consequences that technology buyers would otherwise prefer not to endure.  Hindsight is 20/20.  There are a lot of technology buyers, who, thanks to the way they're locked into something now, would have done things differently had that 20/20 vision been equally applicable to their foresight.  This is a chain that must be broken regardless of what the technology at hand is and what vendors are involved.

Likewise, my favorable position on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) has never had anything to do with a prejudice against Microsoft.   It has only had to do with my consistent recommendation that buyers, where ever possible, affords the vendors of those technologies too much control over your IT's budget, security, performance, and stability.  If you're addicted to a proprietary technology and the vendor changes the price, you have little choice but to go along.  If the product has security issues, you're beholden to the vendor to fix them (and they do just that, on their timetable).  Security challenges are also markedly worse when a monoculture is involved.  If the product is slow at something you need it to be fast at, what leverage do you have to make the vendor fix it? Same goes for bugs (stability).  I'm not saying you can't take control of these things by buying another product.  But the switching costs can be so outrageous that switching simply isn't an option for most.  The vendor is in control.

It was probably back in January 2002 when, with my column on what ZDNet readers' top seven priorities for the year should be, that I became more of a fanatic about the virtues of standards than I had ever been.  One thing that I will definitely admit to is that, dating back to that coverage, I never fully explored the shades of gray when it came to standards. For example, in April of that year, I talked about how Internet standards should be royalty free (RF) as though royalties were the only malicious strings that vendors sometimes attach to so-called standards. It was then, when I was just getting to understand the standards issue, that I started to receive a lot of instructive e-mail from folks like the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman and the World Wide Web consortium's Danny Weitzner: e-mail that opened my eyes to the shades of grey of open standards and the strings beyond royalties that result in perversions of open.

Eventually, in my recommendations to ZDNet's readers, I realized the failings of discussing just RF and I started to write about how the standards they adopt need to be completely unencumbered as opposed to just royalty free. My coverage of IBM and the control it was asserting over ebXML at the time (more evidence that I'll call out any vendor, not just Microsoft) helped me to better understand the shades of grey: the more difficult-to-spot encumbrances that sometimes go along with RF standards. I explored the shades of grey between various concepts like royalty free and RAND (by no means the end points of the "open" spectrum). Earlier this year, I took more of an interest in those shades after IBM's Bob Sutor first wrote on June 10 about an "index of openness for specifications and standards in his blog.  One day earlier, in a meeting that Sutor attended, Massachusetts Information Technology Division general counsel Linda Hamel was discussing a "continuum of openness" at that state's first official Open Formats Summit: a single-day event involving Massachusetts state officials and those with an interest in the state's file format deliberations (not just software companies).  Meeting notes and a roster of who attended can be found here.  By the time that I glommed-on to the discussion about measuring openness, I had yet to pay any attention to the file format deliberations in Massachsuetts.

But once I took notice of what was happening right here in my back yard in Massachusetts, it became very clear to me that I was about to get a much needed education on those shades of grey.  True to my ongoing coverage of standards, my first blog about the Massachusetts situation on September 6 (see Should more public agencies heed Massachusett's OpenDoc policy?) zeroed in on the benefits of going with unencumbered open standards.  Say what you will about what has happened in Massachusetts (that state officials have been moving the goal posts or that Microsoft was railroaded by a handful of open source zealots, etc.).  The state's test for openness -- that a specification must be published, subject to peer review, subject to joint stewardship, and must have no or absolutely minimal legal restrictions attached to it -- is still the best and most objective test I've seen (regardless of what standard, specification, or vendors we're talking about) since I first mistakenly started writing that RF was the end-all be-all of how open a standard is.  It goes beyond any test I've come up with on my own.  As well it should.  Who better to come up with a test than a real stakeholder with internal and external constituencies to satisfy such as a CIO like Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn? Me? I'm an armchair quarterback.

So, if I'm being asked to admit to something, it shouldn't be that I have some prejudice against any company.  I actually like Microsoft.  I like the way the company gambled on the very complicated Pocket PC at a time when Palm set simplicity as the agenda of mobile computing and predicted years ago that Microsoft would win that battle (as it has).  I currently use a Windows Mobile 2003 phone and the only thing I'll trade it for is one based on Windows Mobile 5.0.  Overall, I like Windows Vista and think that it will be a huge improvement -- particularly on the security front over Windows XP (which I use instead of OS X and Linux as a matter of choice).  If I have to admit to something, it's that I apparently had a lot to learn, even four years after covering standards so deeply, when it comes to what it truly means to be open (I still do).  It's that, in my previous criticisms of companies who pursued  leverage (or lock-in) points through clever uses of open's shades of grey, that I actually may have been too lax by not saying they could be more open than "that" (whatever "that" was at the time).

I think vendors and IT buyers alike can learn a great deal from Massachusetts' ground breaking work in defining a test for openness.  Although it's worthy of coverage in this blog (coverage that some have already accused of being pro-Microsoft), the fact that Microsoft -- or any vendor for that matter -- chooses to improve its score on such a test doesn't require an admission.  Such opening up has been happening ever since I can remember. And, in more recent years, when it has happened (and the event is significant to IT buyers), I've usually been there to cover it. 

So, sure, kudos to Microsoft for improving its openness score on its file formats.  Kudos to IBM for when it improved its score on ebXML back in 2002.  Kudos to Sun for improving its score on Solaris.  I could go on.  Do any of them get a perfect score?  No.  But these and other companies continue to make very significant moves in the right direction. Can they go further? Yes.  But, any time a vendor improves the degree to which its intellectual property is open for implementation, modification, and multi-party stewardship, that is a step in the right direction for the group of people whose interests I represent and to whom I've consistently recommended the adoption of open standards: ZDNet's readers.  Now, thanks to Massachusetts and regardless of how the file format controversy is resolved, when I try my hand at 20/20 foresight,  I'll have an even better standard for what  it means for something to be a standard. A truly open standard.  Hopefully, you will too.

Topics: Open Source


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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