Debunking the ODF Bunk

by M. David Peterson

PLEASE NOTE: I made a mistake. After careful reanalysis, I now believe the original analysis I made regarding Tim Bray's blog entries that I added later and labeled an "Update" contains innaccuracies that require that I remove the content from this entry, annotate a new file with proper information stating this was an error that I can no longer stand comfortably behind as the author and have made this publicly available to ensure proper derefrencing can be made.

No one asked me, or even suggested to me that I remove these comments. I did this on my own accord based on my own decision that this was something I could no longer stand behind, but yet must take full responsibilty for the innaccurate content in a public manner to ensure that this information can be properly propogated.

I also owe Tim an apology. This was not his mistake, and instead mine.

Tim, my apologies. I took things too far out of context, without applying enough care to ensure that my final evaluation was, in fact, something I could continue to stand behind with any level of integrity. I couldn't. It was not a deliberate mistake, but a mistake none-the-less.

Again, my apologies.

The rest of this entry (which was the original post before the additions mentioned were made) I both can, and do stand behind, as I believe that it contains accurate, well researched information. Obviously there are some references that a few folks may not be all that happy about, including Tim. But the content I have now dereferenced was not something that belonged here anymore... I hope you can understand my reasoning for both removing it, annotating it, and making this publically available to ensure that the innaccuracies can be properly referenced and propogated as necessary.

[Original Post] - On the Art (?) of Disinformation: telling the Big Lie

The offense of the Big Lie on the personal level is its assumption that, "I can lie to you and you won't catch me." Taken to the marketplace, and included in letters to government agencies, the effect is pernicious. As a result, exposing the Big Lies is both important and necessary - and hence the reason for blog entries such as this.

This is becoming silly. We no longer live in a world where software is compared on a feature-by-feature basis, and instead debates from one blog to the next by folks who are dissecting legal documents attempting to find "fraudulent" statements to extend the idea that, in fact, the real pioneers, the real hero's, and real men and women fighting for the rights of the common man and common women who, if Microsoft had their way, would be left shoe-less, shirtless, penny-less, and servants to the Almighty Micro-God, bowing down to their every demand just because "thats what we're supposed to do.... The GREAT ONE has spoken, and told it to be so."

First off...


2006-05-12 03:13:02
David - I'm not sure that Tim's statements at the top of the post are contradictory. Last year's response to Jason would be similar to my response - in fact most of Microsoft's Office customers would be more than adequately served by OO.o/StarOffice - most people barely scratch the surface of Office functionality, and a less-featured tool would be "good enough" for them. I also don't see that ODF is restricted to what OO.o/SO can do - they just happen to be the most common use of ODF ATM.

Having said that, there ARE some things that MS Office can do that the others can't, and these are probably very important features for the folks that use them - so let's not deny MS the opportunity to service the high-end user.

That's what I think Tim was saying ...

Bruce D'Arcus
2006-05-12 11:42:50
Hi David, thanks for the thoughts. I'd say you characterize my position right. OTOH, I do think open file formats are crucial, and my test of openness is fairly broad. It means that third party developers can actually make contributions that alter the possibilities of the file format. That happened when I worked with an engineer at Sun to provide state of art citation support. I have asked Microsoft to add this to their formats as well, so that we can raise the bar across file formats and applications. Thusfar I have seen no movement.

THAT is the difference with really open file formats, and why I favor ODF. Nothing religous about it.

M. David Peterson
2006-05-12 14:54:18
Hi Ric,

Thanks for this... Makes perfect sense.

I really should clarify... If there is a person on this planet more real, genuine, and honest than Tim Bray, then my guess is they're probably related... I have always held Tim in the highest regard and this doesn't change that.

Actually, soon after I posted the update, I realized that 6 or so months back I caught myself in a web of hypocrisy (not meaning to infer this word upon Tim... just upon myself and the situation) where in one article I was condemning Java and in another praising .NET, and yet the condemnation for Java was for the same general area of concern as the praise I was applying to .NET. As soon as I realized the mistake, I pulled it out and made public note of it such that if it ever came back to bite me I could showcase the fact that I was both aware and ashamed of my two-faced ideals.

That said, I don't believe Tim is guilty of two-faced ideals... The more I thought about it the more I realized six months is actually a pretty spread out space in time, and to take two quotes out of their original context to then compare them and use this as a test to determine validity of one or the other (or both/neither) is not necessarily the most accurate approach to make any sort of real determination.

I think I owe Tim an apology :)

M. David Peterson
2006-05-12 15:02:55
Hey Bruce,

I'm glad to see that my characterization was fairly accurate, although anybody who has worked with you would know as well as I that your overall attitude towards ODF/MS doc formats is one of acceptance towards anything that will help make a person more productive and more capable in their specific areas of need/use.

re: >> I do think open file formats are crucial, and my test of openness is fairly broad. It means that third party developers can actually make contributions that alter the possibilities of the file format. That happened when I worked with an engineer at Sun to provide state of art citation support. I have asked Microsoft to add this to their formats as well, so that we can raise the bar across file formats and applications. Thusfar I have seen no movement. <<

You've brought out an interesting opportunity, it seems, for an Acid test of sorts to find out just how extensible Office and OpenXML truly are/can be.

MSOffice.Pressure().Apply(Time.Now()); :D

M. David Peterson
2006-05-14 23:07:59
Well, that was easier than I realized. Apparently no pressure was necessary.

Exciting times ahead of us, for sure :)

Kurt Cagle
2006-05-15 11:29:17
Let's talk a little bit about what exactly an open standard is/means. Open Standards are not necessarily ubiquitous, though they are freely available and royalty free. By this light, SVG was not an open standard until after it moved out from being under a RAND license in 2002, even though it was produced by a "standards body", the W3C. This was a significant impediment to adoption, as there was fear on the part of the developer community that after a product was developed by another vendor, Adobe (who held a number of patents for SVG-precedent technologies) could come back and claim prior ownership, effectively forcing a license adoption after the fact.

They are also not generally first to market. In general, proprietary standards can move much faster than open ones can, in great part because there ARE not alternative discussion involved. It's also worth noting that the ODF format here was different from the original Star Office/Open Office format; it is in fact a fairly new specification, though one influenced heavily by the drawbacks and benefits that come from the original specification.

Open standards by their very nature tend to be somewhat regressive in nature, though the good ones provide extension mechanisms to be able to facilitate richer systems. Chances are that there will be some functionality that won't be recordable by an ODF format that's part of Microsoft ... or for that matter Open Office. The question ultimately is whether this information is critical to the integrity of the document, or only to the application.

With the ODF format, I could use it in my own editor application, without fear that Microsoft will change its stance and demand, after the fact, that the format is under a RAND license and I therefore owe what they would see as being a "reasonable" fee but that I may not. They may also choose to change the format at any time, making alterations that would render my editor incompatible with the new format, and while they may eventually publish the new format, the lag between the change time and the publish time could have a significant impact upon my ability to profit from my word processor.

This is a danger that anyone who has used any Microsoft format has faced until now - unless they had specifically licensed the technology from Microsoft, the possibility of a lawsuit could significantly deter development of non-licensed MS filters (indeed, if the ODF filter described in my blog from last week turns out to be more than vaporware, then I suspect that a lawsuit would likely be Microsoft's next recourse).

Consider that you're now seeing the proliferation of reasonably powerful AJAX word processors. (Check out AJAXWrite at for a fairly basic example.) These will almost certainly end up migrating to an ODF format over time, precisely because of the liability issues. They won't have ALL of the features of an MS Office, but I suspect that the higher end ones may come surprisingly close. Given that, how long will it be before the choice of format becomes largely moot, so long as you see a convergence on one? Given the nature of such apps, ultimately it comes down to which transformation is used in the background (since you are in fact probably mapping from an enhanced XHTML to begin with anyway).

Finally, I think there's an interesting point not stated here. That same transformational logic applies just as readily to docx et al being transformed to odf. It would be realistic to assume that there will of course be MS-XML input and output formats in Open Office, and most other platforms, but this in turn means that for most other word processors out there you'll see support for both as well, as one can effectively bridge to the other. I see this strengthening ODF over time, especially outside the United States (and within US and state governmental entities).

Finally, a comment on your initial post:

As such, can we PLEASE put the focus back on building this software, instead of building mountains of legal paperwork leading to yet another Government mandate that does the same thing all Government mandates are designed to do, which is...

Put into place limitations.

Limitations take away from our freedoms, they don't add to them. So why in the name of freedom are we attempting to put in place more limitations?

One reason why the ongoing issue with Massachusetts is so important is the fact that up until now there HAS been a limitation there - because of the large legacy of Word and Excel files that the state government there had, they were essentially in a situation where they had to regular license the various upgrades that Microsoft "offered" for Office because new documents from outside couldn't be opened up in older versions of Office. That cost was significant - several millions of dollars a year in license fees. That money came from state taxes, in most cases taxes on business. In other words, Massachusetts business were subsidizing Microsoft, even those that may have been competing with them.

The move to open standards basically was made to make the landscape more competitive, in order to reduce costs for the government of Massachusetts. A migration to Open Office may or may not be cost competitive in comparison to keeping with the existing MS infrastructure (though I suspect it probably would be), but even with the Microsoft "Office Open" standards, the state would still have to updgrade to the next version of Office to gain that benefit - so at least for one more generation the issue is largely moot ... it WOULD be cheaper, especially as it allows other vendors beyond OO.o get into the game.

Finally, there is no specific mandate upon you, or even upon businesses or private individuals in Massachusetts, to switch from MS Office. There is no loss of freedom here. If anything, you're moving away from a monopolistic situation to one where for the first time in more than a decade you have something resembling a free market again. If MS agreed to support ODF, then there's even a good chance that nobody in MA government would have to change word processors or spreadsheets.

The only mandate that's being placed here is that if a company wishes to compete in its particular market, there are requirements that they need to satisfy ... as it is, any other office suite manufacturer (such as WordPerfect) currently would need to support Microsoft's formats, which are requirements that are placed upon everyone who is NOT Microsoft to be able to play in most markets. Given that Massachusetts role here is as a customer with a set of requirements rather than a government passing specific laws, I fail to see where the onerous mandate is.

Kurt Cagle
2006-05-15 11:32:38
Also, a quick apology on the generally bad grammar in the last post - I've been up since way too early working on a chapter, and I think my brain's signalling that it's time to come up for air.
M. David Peterson
2006-05-15 12:47:11
Hey Kurt,

Of course, its not surprising to discover that our views in this area are quite a bit different. But thats what tends to make our conversations so interesting (at least to me, anyway ;)) in the first place. :)

I don't have the necessary time to properly respond right at the moment, but as soon as a window opens up, I will definitely take the time to properly respond to your comments.

Ping me a bit later on IM if you happen to be around, although from the sound of it, it seems you may be trying to get some rest in between parenting and work-related duties. Let me know if you need help with anything... If necessary, I can adapt my current workload to help whereever needed.

Enjoy your sleep! (If you can afford to get some, that is :))

M. David Peterson
2006-05-18 13:55:40
Hey Kurt,

I've held back from commenting on this until now as I felt that I needed to give myself some distance from this post as to get far enough past the obvious emotional side to this, allowing for a more reasonable approach and subsequent response.

Two things:

1) Similar to the respect I have for Tim, the respect I have for you is at the very top of my "respect meter" if such a thing actually existed.
2) Just as it was necessary to provide an apology and public remmittance for my "Update:" comments to Tim, I feel I at very least should provide enough respect as to allow for the fact that my opinions are simply less important than is showing you due respect; a respect that is well deserved and worthy of me simply backing down and lettings things be.

Thanks for taking the time to follow-up! I am probably one of the few people who have a fairly intimate understanding of how much responsibility sits atop those capable shoulders of yours, and how few precious moments you actually have to yourself, which for all intents and purposes simply doesn't exist.

As such, thanks for giving your time to the writing of this follow-up. I can only assume that with the amount of time you spent writing this, the feelings and sentiments are of significant value, based on information that I simply do not have the same level of access to as you.

Chat withya' on the flip-side :)

Rick Jelliffe
2006-05-24 08:48:21
Even though I agree with the conclusion, I think a lot of this blog is pretty confused.

At one stage, it appears to say that a new format from the Word people has legitimacy because one of the original developers of Word worked on the early Star WYSIWYG word processors. However, markup for word processing predates WYSIWYG: indeed, UNIX was originally invented to allow multitasking operation for word processing operators. Indeed, due to the historical antipathy of WYSIWYG and markup, the lineage would speak *against* legitimacy if anything. But of course, the whole legitimacy idea is silly.

A standard involves agreement. Not everyone will always agree. Indeed, a rich software ecosystem demands that not everyone agree, even though this may reduce the network effect benefits that a monoculture might bring. Microsoft clearly has the agreement of a lot of other companies and potential users, certainly enough to warrant standardization at some level.

But I think people should not be too excited either by ODF or Open XML. Neither of them are rich markup. They are both highly format oriented. They provide much nicer access to boring information.

Charles Goldfarb (who once told me that he had expected standard generalized markup to take over in the mid 80s, only to be stymied by WYSIWYG, but not forever) always emphasizes the value of *rigourous* markup: where your data meets certain required quality objectives for consistency and richness. ODF and Open XML don't play in that space, they just represent word processor developers doing what they should have done ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. We don't need to thank someone for stopping abusing us.