Killing Microsoft's Clippy with open source

Summary:Novell distinguished engineer Michael Meeks likes to use the example of Microsoft's unpopular Office assistant to illustrate why open source is really the best option for software development

Michael Meeks has a tough job. Anyone who's struggled with making documents not created in Word interface with Microsoft Office should be able to sympathise.

As a distinguished engineer and architect at Novell, Meeks is tasked with tackling interoperability between Novell's OpenOffice.org productivity suite and Microsoft Office, a job made easier as a result of the high-profile tie-up between the previously vehement rivals.

If it's technically possible to make the project a success, Meeks is the man to do it, having earned a distinguished reputation as a software engineer. But, as with anything around interoperability and Microsoft, there is more to the issue than just the technology.

Things have been further complicated by IBM's recent entry into the OpenOffice.org community, as the company brings with it considerable experience in office applications and users through its own Lotus Domino offering. Faced with a string of competing office applications, not to mention hosted alternatives, such as Google Docs, an arena that was once dominated by Microsoft is looking distinctly crowded.

ZDNet.co.uk met Meeks at the OpenOffice.org forum in Barcelona and talked standards, compatibility and interoperability.

Thanks to Novell's relationship with Microsoft, is it fair to say the two companies are co-operating now?
I think at some level we do. [Novell] released this OpenDocument Format (ODF), which is now an ISO standard. I think people are really interested about not being locked into Microsoft's document standard — .doc. I like to talk to people about software freedom and the incredible power that comes from being able to tweak the software to your needs and adapt it and reuse it in different situations.

Sometimes it is difficult to explain to people, but it is easy to explain to them about their document data not being accessible to them. So there is huge traction out there and lots of people are starting to get interested in open standards and open formats.

So then Microsoft decided they were going to do an open standard too, and guess what: it is a .zip file and it's got XML streams inside it. But, having said that, it has been difficult in the past to do binary file format interoperability. You can make many good arguments that it is not a benefit to have one company totally dominating the market. You need some sort of file format interoperability.

Isn't one file format (such as ODF) better than two? Surely the weakness of having many is the confusion it creates?
Well, yes, and it should be ODF. In an ideal world... yes, a single file format that was a superset of features and so on would be ideal, but it is very difficult to even conceive of that happening. There is just such a lot of vested business interest in this sphere. It is just very difficult to do anything technical. I just can't see anything like that happening.

IBM has announced it will support OpenOffice.org. How do you see its contribution shaping up?
They are very involved in open source but they have held back from contributing to OpenOffice.org for various reasons. Now they have bitten the bullet and we will see how it goes. Software can only improve. It can always get better.

I think IBM brings real credibility to OpenOffice.org and, of course, huge resources. There are a lot of perspectives around this and mine is that a purchaser really wants multiple suppliers. They don't really want multiple implementations. It is no problem having multiple implementations, but it means rewriting the same thing again and again. If that turns you on, of course, then fine.

What they really want is to be able to say that, if this person won't support me, I will go to IBM, or Novell or whoever. Then you can have confidence that there will be people there who can support you. And, if someone is doing a really bad job, you can just switch to someone else and that has just never been the case in the software industry in recent history. There is no choice in document formats. You are tied into a single vendor.

Free software gives you the freedom that, even if you are a one-man shop, you can have it fixed if it is annoying you enough. The example I like to give is "Clippy" — remember? — that whipping boy of journalists. You couldn't turn it off and it came on and you had to talk to it before you came on.

Now turning Clippy off, in my estimation, is a single line of code change. With Microsoft you just couldn't do that. You couldn't get into their software, find the piece of code and...

Topics: Apps, Software Development

About

Colin has been a computer journalist for some 30 years having started in the business the same year that the IBM PC was launched, although the first piece he wrote was about computer audit. He was at one time editor of Computing magazine in London and prior to that held a number of editing jobs, including time spent at the late DEC Compu... Full Bio

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