Wrrr! Fzzzz! Fzzz! Catfight at the ODF Coral

by Rick Jelliffe

The surprising decision of the ODF Foundation founders that ODF has foundered and that what we really need is a format that no-one uses &,dash;I guess that is real neutrality— has triggered a few interesting blogs recently. Rob Weir has one Document Format FUD: A Guide for the Perplexed (insert obvious joke here) and Gary Edwards gives his rationale in a comment here.

Edwards main bone is that he (and his mob) think that the main game has to be to develop an MS Exchange/SharePoint alternative, because the fight for an Office killer has been lost, both because the applications aren't good enough and because the standard has not been completed along the lines needed, according to their strategy. His point is pretty cogent, but I think wrong, because even if an alternative to OOXML was developed to allow alternatives to stop the MS Exchange/Sharepoint monopoly of Edwards' prophecy, there is nothing stopping MS from reading or writing the other standard language, once it got traction. A nice little open source project, perhaps, giving MS agility and plausible deniability for lock-in.

I think both the anti-OOXML pro-ODF people and the new anti-ODF, pro-CDF people both get it wrong, when they think that file formats can change the balance significantly. Open file formats allow conversion to and from different traditions or technical streams: they reduce technical barriers to adoption and to substitution, which in turn means that other quality and cost aspects dominate (as they should.)

However, quote from Edwards is good (though I am not sure who he is addressing):

OBTW, where were you when this was going down? If there's anything we learned in Massachusetts it's that if we're going to defeat Microsoft, it will be in the trenches, with real world solutions that are competitive alternatives to MS-OOXML. Blogging MS to death isn't going to get the job done my friend. When the call goes out for real world solutions, as it did with the Massachusetts RFi, you've got to show up with more than your keyboard and blog.

(IMHO there is a requirement for pro-active laws on long-term superprofits. Without this kind of legislative action to correct markets, file formats are just fiddling while Rome burns.)


2007-11-21 06:17:17
Edwards makes the obvious problem clear: ODF wasn't an attempt to create neutrality or to prevent vendor lock in. It was an attempt to "defeat Microsoft" and collateral damages were acceptable.

And that is why it can't get the kind of traction they are dreaming about. There were obvious winners (IBM, Sun, Google) and obvious losers (the very large body of Microsoft customers). To their complete chagrin, the big numbers are winning because of switching costs to a lower functionality.

IOW: ODF simply isn't a good deal.

Monopolies aren't illegal. Predatory behavior is. It's like being a policeman battling organized crime. If the Boys play the game well, they can keep on doing what they do. If the police use the same tactics, they become criminals. Spy vs Spy.

Edwards is right. It still comes down to running code.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-11-25 22:24:51
Len: I disagree with one part of what you've said.

There are probably as many different reasons behind ODF as there are people involved. Sure, some of the people involved will have been involved because of a desire to get defeat for Microsoft commercially or for market share, but I know that some involved were there because they want a good vendor-neutral format (or, at least, as good a stab at one as can be achieved) because of the community benefits, regardless of its commercial and market implications.

Edwards is right that running code is essential, but he is wrong (IMHO) that file formats are capable of changing the game, and he is dead wrong (IMHO) that ODF should be judged entirely on how whether it allows substitution of office suites (or front-end/back-end office systems). To run the risk of repeating myself, the real drivers for ODF have not gone away, and they won't lessen with OOXML becoming an ISO standard: governments will continue in only increasing numbers to require that public (editable) documents be available in ODF. Governments will be circumspect about doing it fast, to give time for the ODF applications to have their rough edges knocked off, but it is the clear and unobstructed road ahead AFAICS. (We still need profiles, test suites and so on to get anywhere near interoperability.)

Edwards, Marbux and Hiser are clearly passionate in expressing their opinions. That is a euphemism, by the way. I am sure that there are many ODF well-wishers who are comfortable with more dispassionate discussions.

(Btw, I am not sure that it is not illegal to be a monopoly, in some legal systems. But my comments on super-profits were serious: from the economist's POV sustained super profits are the surest sign of a monopoly position. Even a well-behaved monopoly should not have the right to super-profits: typically monopolies disguise their superprofits by ramping up R&D costs and by passing off monopoly-maintaining marketing as a cost. At some stage, governments in first world countries will ask MS "If you can sell your product for $3 there, why don't you sell it for $3 here?")

2007-11-26 06:23:09
Then we have to disagree. Super-profits earned by providing value for value have to be legal. Otherwise, value suffers.
Provide examples of how to regulate that without creating a worse system. There is no right to get super-profits; it isn't wrong either. What is wrong or is to then use those profits to block competition by illegal means. Super-profits are a self-correcting problem if the market is open. The conundrum is lock-in given switching costs over features.

ODF isn't a good deal because feature for feature, the switching costs don't make it a credible deal. Governments can require PDF for final fixed format. That meets the basic requirement for government needs.

What is more interesting is that when exports are required, they include Excel and CSV more often than any other format. The high cost data is in these formats.

I don't think the way forward to ODF is that clear at this time for some governments although there will be those who find it worth legislating it. Call me cynical, but I don't ascribe public good as the only motive for such legislation. Governments seek means to unhorse competitors too.

There are always supporters of formats for the right reasons. Unhorsing Microsoft isn't the right reason. It was fed into the media as a cause du jour. That tactic has the effect of glossing over the right reasons and the people who support them.

In the future, those who support open formats for the right reasons should be wary of who sits down on their side of the aisle and what the effect of their tactics will be on the on outcomes. In this case, the goals were not the same and that has the effect of weakening the outcome. Caveat vendor.

2007-11-26 08:27:23
To be perfectly honest, I haven't got the foggiest what Gary Edwards might be arguing in that comment. He's way off on a tangent when he starts talking about Sharepoint/Exchange stuff when the whole Sharepoint/Exhchange/Infopath thing has nothing to do with anything. I don't see how OOXML sits at the centre of this either, and it sounds like one great big panic about nothing. Yes, Microsoft may have designs in that direction, but quite frankly, who cares? That's not what's at issue.

The whole issue, certainly from the ODF point of view, is can we sufficiently migrate existing Microsoft Office documents (not necessarily OOXML) to ODF in a workable fashion, and do we have workable applications so we can keep working? That's the basic, bog standard question that any organisation will have to ask. Quite why on Earth you would need another format in CDF to accomplish something that isn't required is anybody's guess.

On that basis, it is practically impossible to take Gary Edwards, Hiser or anybody from the so-called OpenDocument Foundation seriously at all. As Joel Spolsky would say, it's all fire and motion.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-11-26 21:06:17
Len: Just to note that I am talking long-term or sustained super-profits, not the odd bumper year or two. Superprofits from patents, superprofits from monopoly, superprofit from non-free trade, super-profit from any market distortion are a burden to the rest of the community.

The equation could be simple: if cost-of-production for a commodity or service (not counting advertising and new R&D, and other monkey money) was less than %95 of its sale price, averaged over three years, then the profits should be taxed at a very high rate, such as 50c in the dollar. (I would exempt companies with revenues less than $1million, and allow some escape clause so that super-profits spent in market correction and public-policy-guided activities were exempt.)

Segedunum: If office formats and their impact are a subject that reasonable people may reasonably disagree on, how much more for unreasonable people? :-)

2007-11-27 06:08:49
Rick: I think we agree in the general given the terms you describe. I am not cheerful about getting that done. The long inflated history of the oil companies proves that one can get away with usury and murder for a long time as long as the fox is favored by the hounds. The John Harrington quote about "treason prospering" comes to mind.
2007-11-27 18:37:50
While I can see where you're coming from and don't like supernormal profits more than anyone else, I think they should be allowed. Rather than tearing down those who have achieved success themselves, it would be far more profitable for humanity to provide opportunities for the next generation of creators and entrepeneurs.

What I mean by this is that we should tax those profits at a reasonable rate (i.e. close loopholes to ensure that things are being taxed at the proper on-the-books rates) and use them to fund both education and government-sponsored research with IP that can be used by everyone within the sponsoring country.

Take AT&T as an example: they used their supra-normal profits internally to create much of the technology that fuels today's internet and computing boom. Part of is that they saw their company as a branch of the US government and thought of the public good. I think that small companies can come up with new and innovative business models and often small or focussed incremental improvements. But it takes the cushiony largess of a big company to create consistent breakthroughs on a large scale.

I think Microsoft could be a bit like the AT&T of the computer world. Sure you can complain about the efficiency and cost of their main service, but that funds the work that MS Research does and behind-the-scenes work to move the PC industry forward. It also funds a lot of failed projects, like WebTV and older forms of digital content distribution. Even Apple, the long time press-favored innovator, is a large company that uses supranormal profits from their sales to fund projects like the iPhone which could very well have failed.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-11-28 01:13:16
nksingh: The trouble with the idea that superprofitmaking companies should be rewarded by inaction because they use some of their superprofits to make socially useful things, is this: what else are they going to do? Of course they will engage in research and so on, however the research agendas they set can be guided by their market-skewed position.

Or, even worse, their market position may mean that R&D which does not fit in with their product strategies get buried: I have a friend who worked in a large multinational company (with less letters in its name rather than more) at a research lab, and his years of work came to nothing: dead and buried because it clashed with a product. This is the opposite of letting the market decide which technology to adopt from a rich solution space.

Now I am not saying that the market is always perfect and optimal and that monopolies or other dictatorships cannot be benevolent. I was reading in the paper today that thanks to Rotary Club and the B&M Gates Foundation, worldwide polio has been cut by 99%...that is wonderful (and indeed the only decent reaction is perhaps to weep with hope before God at the beauty of charity.)

However, the R&D choices that superprofitmaking companies make rightly belong to the concerns that would have had the profits in the absense of a monolopy.

It is the same argument with patents: a different regime results in different patterns of investment and innovation, but it does not result in no investment and innovation. The classic example is Japan: their old patent system required productization within a certain period or the patent would lapse, as I understand it. This encouraged a focus on consumer technology rather than long-term paybacks: the Walkman rather than the Man on the Moon. America and we may have gained lots of technologies (teflon etc) from the space program, but we also gained lots from the Japanese industrial revolution.

I also disagree in the characterization that supertaxes (or other action) on superprofits would "tear down those who have achieved success themselves." If the conditions that allow a monopoly (in a commodity market) to develop are not corrected, it merely prevents others from achieving success. Normal profits and high profits from infrequent bumper years can be left alone.

2007-12-05 09:22:43
>> IMHO there is a requirement for pro-active laws on long-term superprofits.

In which requirements document is this stated, and where is the money to contribute-to/lobby/bribe legislators to pass such laws?