Slashdotters: all together now... Doh!

by Rick Jelliffe

There is a running gag in the Simpsons where, in a flashback, Homer or someone will boldly predict something wildly wrong: 8 track tapes will never die,, that kind of thing. I was reminded of this type of gag today when reading an Slashdot thread from 2004 entitled "Is the new Microsoft Office really open?" It relates to Office 11, but it is interesting to note what rabidly anti-Microsoft people were demanding at that time, and their expectations of getting it.

Some highlights:
  • In summary 'Microsoft says it's opening its Office desktop software by adding support for XML--a move that should help companies free up access to shared information. But there's a catch: It has yet to disclose the underlying XML dialect.' Could this be grounds for another anti-trust suit against Microsoft?"

  • Of course it isn't open. It's a silly question. Open is EVIL. Actually open would eliminate advantages. People would be able to create their own tools to interact with documents, instead of with MS tools. Where's the money in that?

  • The move to XML has the potential to eliminate that sort of brain damage once and for all provided they actually open their file formats.

  • But they can make it so massively complex that it is very difficult to implement interoperability with foreign tools, but that it is somehow much easier to implement with MS-centric tools. ... So maybe the XML format will be like that. If you're Linux-centric, for instance, the threshold of pain for accessing Word XML docs will be fairly high, but if you're Microsoft-centric, with all of their tools, code-snippets, documents, etc., then it won't be nearly as painful.

  • ...even if they use absurdly complex element names,...

  • As long as MS is effectively a monopoly XML will be whatever they say it is, for the majority of people.

  • Of course, most people won't use the XML format at all, since it won't be the default.

  • Even if a language is in XML, you still need to *document it* to be able to *understand* it.

  • Well if the way Microsoft Word saves out as HTML is anything to go by, then concise it most definitely will not be.

  • I suppose they could put some weird binary or encrypted data in the files, but that would defeat the purpose of XML.

  • If the XML files office produce are not made the default save types or if the XML merely encapsulates large portions of binary code, it will not matter one lick that office can save these xml documents because the majority of people will be stuck on the default, unreadable formats.
  • That being said, it's hard to see what business the government has engineering document formats. They could, on the other hand, specify disclosure of formats as a remedy in an anti-trust case, but they generally fall into one of two categories which precludes this: stupid or bought.

  • It's not "obfuscated" so much as it's "optimized." The whole idea seems to be for Word to save as quickly as possible--which the doc file is best at for Word for some reason, probably becuase it's derived from how the program structures documents, and not how some document spec says documents should be handled.
    In an era of 2+ GHz computers with 7200+ rpm hard drives, it seems odd that Microsoft would be unable to write an application than can quickly save and open text files that, on average, run well under 50 kilobytes.

  • The big question (to me) is whether Microsoft can put a legal encumbrance on the XML schema they use for a new file format. Could you publish a schema but have it so wrapped in legalese that (for example) open source projects could not be allowed to use it ?

  • So, is this going to be XML like the rest of the world knows it, or is it going to be an embrace and extend XML? Or, could it be a mutant XML? How about an XML that makes reference to Windows specific resources IDs?

  • Adoption of a "standard" is no guarantee of interoperability. Understanding the conceptual underpinnings of the standard is just as important. The question is, when Microsoft says they are using XML as a document format, are they doing it because they believe in the principles underlying it, or solely for the cynical "this is what is selling now" aspect?

  • The Office file formats will be open if M$ decides to:

    * Document them, and

    * Not change them with every update.

    I doubt they will do either of those things.

  • They simply have no reason to play nice in an industry consortium to agree on a DTD/Schema when they have 90% market share. But as long as they publish the details of their Schema and don't leave chunks of encoded COM schwag lying all over the place it doesn't matter. Of course, we all know the likelihood of that happening.

  • Something in my gut tells me that beyond all the extraneous tags, attributes and data types, the XML is going to have a hash code built into it.

  • For an XML language to be open, you need a full description of what each possible construct in that language means.

  • It would be quite easy to make the M$ document xml format propriatry. Make all default generated documents have linked in components like some ActiveX HTML pages. You might be able to read the base parts of the document but that won't make it very userful without M$.

And so on...ratbags and survivalists: a bitter cup but with a few drops of sweeetness from such as Liam Quinn plonked in. So lets suppose the Masters of the Four-Paned Beast capitulated and gave these Knights of the Slashed Dot pretty much everything they were calling for: we would get a requirements list along the lines of:

  • Open up: use XML with no extensions

  • Open up: provide copious documentation

  • Open up: don't require MS-specific tools for processing; allow people to make their own tools

  • Open up: don't use long element names

  • Open up: make it the default save format for Office

  • Open up: use real XML, don't just wrap binary or encrypted sections in XML tags

  • Open up: don't have legal encumbrances on use

  • open up: don't have defaults that use (or require) COM or embedded objects or anything MS platform-proprietary.

  • Do have some stability to the format: don't have a lot of updates

  • optimization is OK

  • integration with the deeper "conceptual underpinnings" of XML is important

It strikes me that this is almost exactly a description of the direction that MS then took with Open XML. The Slashdotters don't know they won, (or at least that in 2007 they would get what they were asking for in 2004.) ...Perhaps in 2010 they may get what they are demanding in 2007! "Doh!"


Kurt Cagle
2007-07-06 11:23:08

Yes, but this is all really just a conspiracy to make you think that Microsoft isn't really evil ... ;-)

Microsoft, to both its credit and detriment, do have a reputation for listening to their customers and generally producing what those customers want. While many on the Slashdot side are fairly vocal in their opinions about Microsoft, the arguments that weren't simply polemic screeds for the most part broke down into the concerns, wishes and fears of those who have used Office, know XML, and wished the world's most widely used word processing programming would actually produce and consume XML content that they could use. My biggest complaint (since 2001) against MS in that regard has been that they have taken so long to get to a point where they were producing usable XML in the first place - they're there now, and I think it will have a profound effect upon content management globally.

2007-07-06 18:33:54
Back then nobody expected MS to wield patents as weapons either.

Anyway ODF is a much better, cleaner, easier to implement format. In fact nobody can implement the openXML except MS.

Finally why is MS so anti ODF if it has no advantage with OpenXML?

2007-07-06 19:10:53
yes, there is no advantage in OpenXML. M$$$ just wanted to make their bank accounts a little empty (you know the banks can't handle that much $$$), so they spent few years of r&d and developed a format that is just lame and a copy of already popuplar, easy to use, standard, ODF. Now the banks are happy, the devs who worked on it are happy (hey, they just copied! that's not hard), who's complaining?
Justin George
2007-07-07 02:08:56
Ironic, as I read those comment summaries, I was thinking "Pretty much nail on the head"

As it turns out, (as I understand it) the spec is pretty much too byzantine to ever implement completely, and will be therefore implemented 'however microsoft is doing it' thus leading to many of the feared disadvantages.

2007-07-07 13:32:07
The XML file formats in Office don't even match the OOXML spec. What are people meant to do?

And how are others meant to even implement stuff that is in the spec, like "lineWrapLikeWord6"?

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-07 17:17:21
Christopher: On lineWrapLikeWord6, there is no specification for normal line-wrapping either, just like there is none in ODF. You don't need to do anything special to implement it: it is a hint for legacy documents. In both cases, as with ODF, if you want to emulate a particular product rather you have to reverse engineer. XML document interoperability is at information level (i.e. all the information is there to make the necessary decisions) not at the procedural or page level.
Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-07 17:20:30
Chistopher: If Office doesn't generate valid Open XML (and what is your evidence for this, please) then that is exactly why Open XML should be a standard: because it provides an objective constraint on MS that they must follow themselves.
Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-07 17:28:28
Justin: The spec is too byzantine to implement? There are three kinds of implementation:

1) Vertical integration, where people access and generate the XML as part of larger systems, such as pipelines. People are happily doing this, and don't report any difficulties.

2) Horizontal integration, where the Open XML file format is imported or exported from other suites, or where Open XML is converted to the native format of other suites. This is obviously being done. See Gnumeric.

3) Re-implementation of Office. This is where the underlying data model in Open XML is used as the date model of a new office suite or product. This is certainly not being done AFAIK, but not because the spec is byzantine, but because people are using the more modern ODF data model.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-07 17:42:54
Kurt: I think they also have a reputation for suddenly stopping listening too: think of IE's stagnation, for example. This would definitely cause a difficulty with ISO and maintenance, because if it takes a year and a half to fast track a standard, that means that their development teams will have a year and a half to sort out their features and priorities for development of the next version without feedback from ISO members about their concerns. If MS is serious, their Office team would already have the doable comments from various National Bodies on their radar, say for a service.

You would remember that Sun (twice) put up Java for ISO stndardization, only to pull out because they did not want to lose control of such a strategic asset (hence the Java "Community" Process.) It will be interesting to see whether MS has the ability to change its development culture enough cope with ISO's minimal ongoing requirements.

I see their move to standardization as a response in part to anti-trust considerations. Shlashdotters think MS is engaged in some anti-ODF drive -- they are certainly involved in an anti-ODF-only drive which is not the same thing -- but I think the reason for their standardization efforts is that having decided that they needed to go for standards in order to assuage European Union anti-trust concerns, they are trying to get the maximum benefit from it by re-invigorating their Integrators.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-07 18:00:13
Malcontent: On patents, as part of the ISO and ECMA process MS has covenanted not to sue. So even if the patents are actually junk, they aren't going to use them. They are playing a different game here than with the Operating System patents, and it merely clouds the issue to conflate them.

People are implementing Open XML all over the place. See the answer to Justin above. The myth of "complete implementation" is very persistent it seems.

MS is not anti-ODF. They voted for it at ANSI, for example. They pay for an open source project to generate ODF from Office. What they are against is policies that would mandate ODF for government documents.

I have gone to several countries, conducted seminars, and talked to various decision leaders and done press interviews, as part of MS education program (now stopped, I am a private citizen again) I always say that I think ODF is the right choice for public government editable documents. I have never once had any expression of concern from the MS people: in fact they were very encouraging. This is because these kind of public documents should not be using any MS-specific or ODF-specific features anyway: they should be level-playing field.

AFAIKS what MS is more interested is the "Document Engineering" vision, of smarter documents. I reviewed Bob Glushko and Tim McGrath's book of that title before on this blog, but it is really helpful if you want to understand what is going on. I just found this link to an interview with Bob Glushko. (I see in the same series is one with Miguel de Icaza too.)

2007-07-08 03:29:20
You read SlashDot? Why?

When I look across the stack of books I require to keep up with churn in the platforms as they replace features that worked ok with features that are supposed to be more productive and will be as soon as I buy yet another book with just enough details to write the toy implementation... who has time for Slashdot and what is there to care about?

Slashdot is talk-radio for programmers. Who needs it...

Microsoft? Can't live without 'em. Just can't afford their books.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-08 06:41:08
Len: No, I don't read Slashdot, but it was never a wave I jumped on or off. Its like Second Life or golf or crystal meth: I can understand the words that people use to say why they like it, but I sort of don't get it. That page came up from Google, and it is a good indication of how fast the ground has shifted. And shifted in an entirely good direction IMHO.

I was going to re-coin Bismark's famous line as Standards is the art of the possible but perhaps John Kenneth Galbraith's counter quote fits just as well Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

2007-07-09 14:17:50
Haha this is funny indeed. :D

I remember when /. was a daily visit (and then when digg was a daily visit). Now the fervor of religious noise makes both such an oblivion that both are worthless to read except for an occasional scan of the /. front page.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-07-17 15:07:34
On some comments on this page elsewhere, people have pointed out that not all the comments I selected fit into the "doh" model. That is bad for the joke, but better for balance perhaps.

(And I point out that not all the Slashdot comments were fatuous. And I hope it comes across that, ultimately, the "doh" is not one of "we were dumb; MS is so nice and harmless" but "wow, maybe our complaints actually achieved something when we thought it was impossible".)

2007-07-31 05:47:43
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2007-12-18 15:30:10
It seems they really need to pay a predictor. :P So they can ask everything they will need in 2010... and maybe they will think more about the advantages that they can offer us.