When two standards are better than one

When two standards are better than one

Summary: This week, while I was in San Francisco, Sun held a round-table meeting to discuss its postion on open file formats.  The meeting was held only a few hours after a hearing on the hotly contested matter was held in Massachusetts as that state looks to decide if it is going to move forward in support of just the OpenDocument Format, or if Microsoft's Open XML will be added to its list of approved file formats.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Open Source
17

This week, while I was in San Francisco, Sun held a round-table meeting to discuss its postion on open file formats.  The meeting was held only a few hours after a hearing on the hotly contested matter was held in Massachusetts as that state looks to decide if it is going to move forward in support of just the OpenDocument Format, or if Microsoft's Open XML will be added to its list of approved file formats.  Based on the content of the meeting, Sun is clearly in the camp that one standard is better than two while Microsoft sees no problem with supporting an extra one.  I'm in the "one" camp.  Always have been.  Never liked the messes that were caused by things like DVD+R and DVD-R.  Imagine if we had two standards for TCP/IP (the protocol that makes the Internet tick).  Or two standards for Web browsing.  Whoops, we do.  And that's gotten us into several messes that some people would rather do without. 

There's a reason one format won the VHS/BetaMax war.  Sure, two or more standards can survive in a market.  But just because they can doesn't always mean it's a good idea.  In most cases where two more standards are surviving in a market, it's not because the buyers got together and said "You know what would be great Phil? If we had two or more standards that were incompatible with each other for this one thing." In just about every case I can think of, it was the sellers that thought it was a good idea. Sellers with their own agendas. I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain the differences between the GSM, CDMA, and iDEN flavors of cell phone technology and why they don't interoperate.  When I'm done explaining it, it's not uncommon to get "That's dumb. Who thought of that?" as a response. 

Two or more standards in a market often ends up being a source of unncessary confusion.  Two or more standards (for the same thing) inside one enterprise makes even less sense. If you ask me. Why bother setting standards at all? Because the greatest thing about them is there's so many?   The reasons enterprises standardize is for interoperation with other systems. Not only does that interoperation equate to more seemless sharing of data (not necessarily as important for a whole market as it is for a single enterprise), it's what facilitates easy switching to a another solution should you become dissatisfied with your current solution because of its costs, peformance, stability, or security.  For example, if certain bloggers are now thoroughly dissatisfied with SixApart's TypePad now that that service has essentially crashed for both publishing and viewing of recent posts (again).

Massachusetts is apparently now open to having two standards for the same thing (Office productivity file formats which is not what PDF is for).  If it's going to do that and throw away the true benefits of interoperation, it might as well not have a standard at all which is why I think it should pick one and stick with it.  The same way five separate library associations are apparently doing the same.  Never mind which one they picked.  I'm purposely staying away from the issue of which one to pick.  That's for a separate blog.  Massachusetts is apparently open to going with two.  So says the Boston Globe.  I think that's a mistake for Massachusetts.  I think that's a mistake for you. 

Topic: Open Source

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

17 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Bravo! Ban ASCII and TXT! Great idea!

    I think you'd be better off just writing "I hate Microsoft" over and over, that's all I can see in your posts. It's pretty old by now, everyone reading your post is aware of your opinion here.

    But I completely agree; there should only be one standard (really, there has only ever been one possible outcome here): ODF should just give up. Sun and IBM should take their majority vote and disband the committee. It is no longer needed or wanted by the IT community at large... an irrelevant format supported by irrelevant products. Now that a standardized format for Word exists, ODF just doesn't matter.

    The Word format is what people wanted all along anyway.

    Pardon my interjection of reality.
    opensourceidiot
    • I work in IT

      Excuse me, but I work in IT and I would like to see an open standard so that the users stop asking me to try and open files in some old file format that no one seems to know how to decode anymore. Even Microsoft loses interest in their old formats. I hope ODF does succeed and becomes a good foundation for everyone.

      I think you are jumping to conclusions about David hating Microsoft. He is just looking at it from a "whats best for the enterprise in the long term" point of view. And of course the long term is even more important for the public sector than for the private sector as governments tend to last a lot longer and have to take that into account. I have worked in a government department where, by law, a particular system will have to be kept running until 50 years after the last person in the database has died so that the information can be presented if required, in the way that it is presented today. Open standards would help a lot with this kind of thing.
      mehere
    • I work in IT

      Excuse me, but I work in IT and I would like to see an open standard so that the users stop asking me to try and open files in some old file format that no one seems to know how to decode anymore. Even Microsoft loses interest in their old formats. I hope ODF does succeed and becomes a good foundation for everyone.

      I think you are jumping to conclusions about David hating Microsoft. He is just looking at it from a "whats best for the enterprise in the long term" point of view. And of course the long term is even more important for the public sector than for the private sector as governments tend to last a lot longer and have to take that into account. I have worked in a government department where, by law, a particular system will have to be kept running until 50 years after the last person in the database has died so that the information can be presented if required, in the way that it is presented today. Open standards would help a lot with this kind of thing.
      mehere
      • I think we're arguing the same point.

        I also work in IT. And yes, I get it, this is precisely the reason for having published file format specifications (like PDF), so anyone can create the tools required to open them if they don't exist already.

        This is quite different than a "standard," like residential electrical wiring or measurement systems for professional printing. The ability to read document formats in the future does not require any legislation to enforce. This requires software companies to document and publish their file formats, which both Microsoft and ODF do.

        I shoud also make my own bias clear here. These two "Standards" are a bogus proposition; a lie, both of them.

        IBM and Sun own ODF. Microsoft owns Open XML. It doesn't matter which committee you send it to, the respective companies own the majority vote, control the formats, end of story. I really dislike this debate between ODF and Open XML, it's like watching two six-year-olds on the playground, fighting over a ball. It just doesn't matter. This is all corporate posturing, nothing more.

        Apologists for ODF and Microsoft who defend their support for "standards" in their products are only protecting their proprietary interest. The ODF collective is only arguing their proprietary interest as it relates to cracking open the stronghold of Microsoft; Microsoft standardizes file formats as a business defense. It seems very black and white to me.

        An argument for ODF in MA is quite clearly an argument for the "beta" camp (to borrow an analogy.) ODF is not used broadly today, there simply is no market need to ensure their interoperability now or in the future. Even Open Office and Star Office went to quite a length to ensure they could convert Microsoft formats, those developers knew that to have any credibility whatsoever, support for MS formats is mandatory.

        Every time I read about how ODF promotes "interoperability", I ask myself "interoperability with WHAT?"

        I really don't see how it makes any sense at all to propse the state of MA not support as many "standards" as it takes, one two or fifteen. As you say, if you want to be able to read a document 50 or 100 years from now, choose formats who have published speficiations, and build your own viewers for them; problem solved, no partisan legislation required.

        As for David Berlind, I think the history of his posts on this topic are evdience enough, but I don't care to debate the point, he'll prove it for me.
        opensourceidiot
        • David Berlind has not thought this through

          The MA issue is not about trying to define a single standard for comprises a document. That's a fools errand as long as documents continue to gain function -- such as forms handling, computed fields, rich data types such as videao, and so on.

          Well, you could standardise documemnts, but you would essentially be dependent for all future innovation on the document standard owner. As "opensourceidiot" points out, that would be either IBM and Sun, or Microsoft.

          The State of MA has a much more reasonable goal. They want to enusure that documents they create today can be read and written later -- even if that requires building a reader/editor. For that, all they require is that the storage formats are published, freely available, and that they are reasonable (ie. supported by a standards body). The State of MA's requirement is more akin to agreement that blueprints accompany a building than that all buildings be built in exactly the same way.

          More on this here ... http://cliffreeves.typepad.com/dyermaker/2005/12/the_dust_is_set_1.html
          cjreeves_z
        • If you do work in IT then

          If you do work in IT then, unless you work for Microsoft, you are doing your organisation a disservice by taking the position that you have. Microsoft's EULA with Open XML is designed to be as closed as possible while ODF is a much more open system. For example, you cannot legally use or write any GPL software that can open or edit the Open XML file. By the way, Microsoft also owns ODF along with IBM and Sun as they are also a member of OASIS.

          It is wrong to say that "there simply is no market need to ensure their interoperability now or in the future" as no one knows what the future will bring and how we will be using data in the future. It is highly likely that people will build systems that automatically extract data out of documents for use in various ways and this is the sort of thing that ODF can do unencumbered with licensing restrictions on what software is allowed to do this and this is something that Open XML does not allow.

          You argue that ODF is not used broadly today and that is why it should be ignored but it is a young format and that may change over time. After all, Microsoft's Word format was not used broadly in the heyday of WordPerfect but that changed over time.

          I don't see David as being anti-Microsoft but rather looking out for the interests of organisations that use IT, rather than organisations that produce IT, and home users. At least from what I have read of his blog.
          mehere
          • False.

            So now we get into the trivial details... Yet again, this is a myth. ODF and Open XML are wide open.

            It seems that a 'covenant not to sue' is a pretty broad brush stroke for licensing a file format. I have absolutely no doubts that the Microsoft license is just as open as anything else.

            I would also like you to cite specific items in this alleged Open XML EULA that makes you think that it is "closed." Please quote the actual EULA text in this forum. Reading this it's pretty clear that you either work for IBM/Sun or are part of the ODF group. To date, they are the only ones saying this.

            The scenario you describe about extracting document content is already possible in MS Office, so I'm really not sure what you're talking about here either. (O'Reilley published a great book on this topic ("Office 2003 XML" or something like that); it discusses how to integrate your own schemas into Office documents.) I find it amusing that you see this as something that will happen "in the future."

            Word Perfect does / did not enjoy the same level of usage and distribution of their documents. Even if ODF does gain traction, you'll still have to account for the huge amount of Microsoft formats that have already been created. You simply can't just wish them away by inventing a new format.
            opensourceidiot
          • Umm

            Umm, you haven't actually replied to the points that I made.

            By the way, I still work for a government department, just a different one to the one I mentioned in my first post on this blog.
            mehere
          • not false at the moment

            Microsoft has not issued a covenant not to sue (CNS) as of yet. They have said thay they will do so. There is a BIG difference. No person who is aware of Microsoft's history can reasonably be expected to simply accept a Microsoft promise.

            There are questions that Microsoft has not answered. For me, I would like them to clarify the licensing surrounding the "Open Packaging Conventions" (OPC) technology which is used by the Office 12 formats.

            The OPC technology has a separate license from the actual XML schemas. Microsoft can grant you a CNS for the schemas while not granting one for the OPC. Without the OPC, you cannot actually use the Office 12 formats.

            Here is a quote from the current patent license for the OPC:

            (http://www.microsoft.com/whdc/xps/pkgpatentlic.mspx)

            "If you distribute, license or sell a Licensed Implementation, this license is conditioned upon you requiring that the following notice be prominently displayed in all copies and derivative works of your source code and in copies of the documentation and licenses associated with your Licensed Implementation:

            This product may incorporate intellectual property owned by Microsoft Corporation. The terms and conditions upon which Microsoft is licensing such intellectual property may be found at http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=52440."

            Note that this requirement is incompatible with the GPL. This is open?
            mosborne
          • DRM fears add fuel to the fire

            My concern is that in five years time DRM (digital rights management) hardware will be in full swing and all documents saved in the .DOC format will only be able to be opened in Microsoft proprietary software, i.e. Microsoft Office 2010. This would effectively mean that a private corporation, Microsoft, would control the key to viewing public documents. More than that, in the same way music companies intend to use DRM to enable them to sell music for only x-days use (DRM enables them to edit/delete mp3's remotely after the licensed period has expired), DRM would grant Microsoft the ability to edit/remove .doc documents remotely.

            Now, granted this is in many ways fear mongering. The government can pass laws to prevent this kind of misuse, and, lets be honest, Microsoft is not stupid enough to engage in this kind of activity. The thing to realize is that while Microsoft would never go to this extreme, giving them this kind of control still gives them leverage they should never have had in the first place. A simple scenario is that Microsoft might charge the public more than they could otherwise.

            The ODF, as an open-standard, would not be 'protected' by DRM and thus, the government would be able to CHOOSE between Microsoft's products or some other product. Even if they still choose Microsoft, the threat of switching would keep Microsoft's prices in check.
            Feldon
          • Obviously you are not a lawyer

            First ODF is wide open, no poisen pills. XML is not. PDF is wide open. If MS wanted to remove all doubt they should have followed Adobe's already excepted methodology for being truely "open".

            Covenant not to sue doesn't give the rights to use it. A big difference. Open source will want the right to use it in a braud manner, not a covenent not to sue. Legally these two are the difference between night and day. This is the poison pill and MS knows it.

            By the way, ODF has more industry use then MS XML formats. MS is the new kid on the block, so it is almost a joke when you call ODF beta. The native format for Open Office has been XML for as long as I have used it (2+ years). MS standard format even today is proprietary binary.

            The fact that everyone has put up with MS black boxes for so long and run into problems is why people don't want to continue forward. You argument is sense we done it poorly for 10 years, lets keep doing it the same old way. Great logic!

            Are you an MS employee?
            TomM_z
      • I think we're arguing the same point.

        I also work in IT. And yes, I get it, this is precisely the reason for having published file format specifications (like PDF), so anyone can create the tools required to open them if they don't exist already.

        This is quite different than a "standard," like residential electrical wiring or measurement systems for professional printing. The ability to read document formats in the future does not require any legislation to enforce. This requires software companies to document and publish their file formats, which both Microsoft and ODF do.

        I shoud also make my own bias clear here. These two "Standards" are a bogus proposition; a lie, both of them.

        IBM and Sun own ODF. Microsoft owns Open XML. It doesn't matter which committee you send it to, the respective companies own the majority vote, control the formats, end of story. I really dislike this debate between ODF and Open XML, it's like watching two six-year-olds on the playground, fighting over a ball. It just doesn't matter. This is all corporate posturing, nothing more.

        Apologists for ODF and Microsoft who defend their support for "standards" in their products are only protecting their proprietary interest. The ODF collective is only arguing their proprietary interest as it relates to cracking open the stronghold of Microsoft; Microsoft standardizes file formats as a business defense. It seems very black and white to me.

        An argument for ODF in MA is quite clearly an argument for the "beta" camp (to borrow an analogy.) ODF is not used broadly today, there simply is no market need to ensure their interoperability now or in the future. Even Open Office and Star Office went to quite a length to ensure they could convert Microsoft formats, those developers knew that to have any credibility whatsoever, support for MS formats is mandatory.

        Every time I read about how ODF promotes "interoperability", I ask myself "interoperability with WHAT?"

        I really don't see how it makes any sense at all to propse the state of MA not support as many "standards" as it takes, one two or fifteen. As you say, if you want to be able to read a document 50 or 100 years from now, choose formats who have published speficiations, and build your own viewers for them; problem solved, no partisan legislation required.

        As for David Berlind, I think the history of his posts on this topic are evdience enough, but I don't care to debate the point, he'll prove it for me.
        opensourceidiot
    • ODF Does Matter

      I like what MS has done for the industry. I don't like that it has become dumb, fat, and lazy. ODF is just what is needed to make the Office Suite industry to inovate so I the consumer wins.
      TomM_z
  • MS XML is backwater stuff, ODF is hot.

    You can't do anything with MS XML. The style info is binary and undocumented. It's useless. Ma. might as well post Word .Docs instead.
    ODF however is standards compliant, and will do far.
    It already has vast support if supplier numbers count. (and I think they do). If Apple supported ODF with Claris works it would be a good thing also I think.
    hipparchus2001
  • Top Tip

    David,

    The reasons that two standards come into existence are twofold:
    - New market dynamics; and
    - Intellectual (so called) Property Rights [IPR].

    Just as with the VHS/Betamax wars you cite, XML Schema and document formats are a new technology in a new market. You might think that collaboration, extranets, data standardization, and meta-data are pretty old hat in IT - and you would be wrong. XML is the first standard to bring all these threads, and others, together for enterprise data that is both structured and unstructured.

    The reason that there are competing cellular technologies is because initial IPR owners for cellular technology created standards (just as Microsoft created the .doc and .xls file formats) and demanded IPR license fees from any manufacturer following those standards. This is a sorry tale of greed that continues right up to the creation of new wireless standards today.

    It is not difficult to understand the motivation behind this activity. IPRs (e.g. patents) grant monopoly rights, and the owner of a technology standard therefore becomes the de facto regulator of the market with a veto power over any new market development that might undermine that (unelected) power.

    You're quite right of course, there is never a good time to have a double standard. That should also be true of how standards are selected for use...
    Stephen Wheeler
  • VHS/betamax - good analogy, just not the one you think

    I'm glad you brought up VHS vs. Betamax, David. A lot of your readers don't even know there WAS a betamax videotape format. VHS won out before some of them were born, because the machines that played it were less expensive, and that was the more important criterion in the mass consumer market.

    I imagine your analogy is that VHS was better because Betamax was proprietary to Sony, so all the other electronic manufacturers jumped on VHS, which sounds similar to the situation Microsoft's proprietary format for documents.

    But one important difference then was that no one had a real leg up in the market and movie distributors were willing (for a while) to produce content in both formats and "let the market decide." I don't think the analogy maps well to electronic documents - even you must concede that office productivity applications are ubiquitous and 90%+ of the world's office documents are in Word format. OK, maybe it's only 85%. But it's a VERY LARGE NUMBER that Massachusetts has seen fit to ignore.

    To beat your analogy lifeless, it's as though the US government waited until every consumer had a VHS deck in their home, then mandated exclusive use of Betamax for all video content aired on federal property.

    Something else people forget is that, technically, Betamax was a better format, with higher video and audio quality and better transports. So the "better" standard didn't win out, the "more available" one did. But I don't want to dwell on which standard is a better DOCUMENT standard from a technical point of view. I'm not in a position to judge. And more importantly, I don't think you care. This isn't an argument about technical merit, it's about exclusivity.

    The reality is, the document standard war was won long ago after all the other word processing apps fell by the wayside. It may be that they were pushed by an aggressive and arrogant Microsoft. I don't know. It might just as well be that no one was even in the same ballpark with respect to application integration (i.e. Office), automation (i.e. Visual Basic and VBA), or backward compatibility (support for older document formats). Regardless, the war is over, and I have no doubt that Massachusetts will figure that out eventually.

    I lived in the South in the 1960's and it seemed like some people there were still fighting a war they'd lost a century before. I'm sorry to say that they didn't "just get over it" and were ultimately relieved of any significant say in the future of their homeland. Something like that seems, to me, to be the likely outcome of Massachusetts IT Division's unwillingness to Get Over It.
    GDF
    • Hardware & Software Standards are not the Same.

      Actually BetaMAX and VHS is not a good analogy.

      The decision between BetaMAX and VHS was hardware driven. You couldn't put a BetaMAX tape in a VHS Player. Even though BetaMAX was a better format, the VHS hardware technology (which was cheaper) won. Hardware drove the standard - not format.

      We don't have that situation in the PC World. Both the ODF format and the MS XML format will work on your PC. We can leave it up to the software maker to decide which format to support.

      Massachusetts was not trying to create a standard. They just want to protect the investment they have in their documents. To that end they have indicated they will only support open document formats (such as ODF and PDF).

      Most software today utilizes proprietary file formats. This is the trend that is dangerous. Hopefully more companies will see the light, as Microsoft has, and they will open up their file formats.

      By engaging in this discussion, Massachetts has done a service to the entire PC community.
      kyron.gustafson@...