Friday, February 21, 2014

If I was Sauron - ODF vs OOXML

Sometime ago, I wrote about the rather tortuous path that UK government has faced over open standards and the likely battle that was going to develop over OpenXML vs ODF. Well it seems with MSFT rallying its supporters to respond the the Cabinet Office consultation then that battle is finally upon us.

When I published the post, I also wrote some notes on what I would do if I was a lobbyist in charge and how would I persuade a Government that it should lock itself in further. I called it rather jokingly - Sauron PR: 'we've got an eye on your future'

The notes were based upon a set of techniques from messaging, to a late surge, to creation of fear and to occupying the middle ground. The last point is of particular interest because one common technique is always to attempt to establish two extremes with your viewpoint as the centre ground. Hence, you try to create one extreme of proprietary, pro IPR and a counter extreme of open source, anti IPR and then promote yourself as the more reasoned middle. Of course, the extreme of open source and anti-IPR is almost entirely fictitious as open source is very much pro certain types of IPR (which is why we have open source licenses). But when it comes to lobbying and perception then you should never let a bit of reality spoil the party and if you can't find an extreme then you can always manufacture it.

Anyway the post from MSFT made me smile, it is almost golden. I don't know whether this is part of a crafted campaign but it hit many of the points that I would have raised hence I thought I'd take some time to go through it. 

It opens with ...

"You may not be aware, but the UK government is currently in the process of making important selections about which open standards to mandate the use of in future. These decisions WILL likely impact you; either as a citizen of the UK, a UK business or as a company doing or wanting to do business with government"

First it's absolutely spot on with these points. Yes, the UK Government is in the process of making selections and yes, it's supposed to have an impact. Governments don't tend to do things unless they intend to have an impact. The whole point of open standards is to enable a more competitive market where users have choice and know if they switch between one software system and another that things work. Any work you have to do in the switch is a cost of being locked into one system. As MSFT points out the UK government has significant lock-in to MSFT, estimated by them at around £500 million. That's an awful lot.

The UK Government obviously would like to have choice - we're talking word documents and spreadsheets after all and there's no sensible reason for the UK Gov to continue increasing it's liability by remaining locked into a format that isn't an open standard.

'An important current proposal relates to sharing and collaborating with government documents. The government proposes to mandate Open Document format (ODF) and exclude the most widely supported and used open standard for document formats, Open XML (OOXML).'

This is pure Machiavellian genius - if I was Sauron PR then I would hire this person straightaway.

When I write a .docx file in Office 2013 then the file has one of two possible OpenXML (aka OOXML) formats - transitional and strict.  Yes, you heard me right - OpenXML (OOXML) has two forms.

The transitional format is the default for Office 2013 out of the box and is also the version used to write .docx in Office 2010. It's absolutely right to say that transitional OpenXML is a popular format and many documents are written in transitional Open XML (well, almost and then there's issue of extensions). However, and this is the neat bit, the ISO approved 'open' standard is strict OpenXML and the transitional format is only supposed to have been ... wait for it ... transitional.

So, you can say that the Office default for .docx and hence one of the popular formats is transitional OpenXML and strict OpenXML is an ISO approved open standard. But of course any lobbyist worth their salt would reduce this by dropping the words strict and transitional to arrive at the popular format is OpenXML which is an ISO approved open standard. 

Did you see the trick?

Whilst OpenXML is most definitely a popular format and whilst OpenXML is an ISO approved open standard, the popular OpenXML (transitional) it is not the open standard but the 'very format the global community rejected in September 2007, and subsequently marked as not for use in new documents' whilst the ISO approved open standard of OpenXML (strict) is not the most popular - in fact, to save a document in .docx (strict) you have to navigate through the save options in Office 2013. 

It's a bit like the old gag of you're both witty and original, it's just a shame that the original bits aren't witty and the witty bits aren't original. However when it comes to perception though, this is pure PR genius. Of course, I'm ignoring the issue of extensions, how the standard itself is being modified and the whole question of it being an open standard.

'We believe this will cause problems for citizens and businesses who use office suites which don’t support ODF, including many people who do not use a recent version of Microsoft Office or, for example, Pages on iOS and even Google Docs. Microsoft Office has supported ODF since 2007, but adoption of OOXML has been more widespread amongst other products than ODF'

Ok, first of all industry has to adapt to defacto standards and there is no doubt that the not open transitional OpenXML format for .docx is fairly pervasive. However, proprietary formats create lock-in (as MSFT pointed out such lock-in will cost UK Gov around £500 million) and the Government consultation isn't about increasing lock-in but adopting an open standard in order to create a more competitive market. Fortunately, an open standard such as ODF exists and Microsoft Office and many others do support it. 

'This move has the potential to impact businesses selling to government, who may be forced to comply. It also sets a worrying precedent because government is, in effect, refusing to support another internationally recognised open standard and may do so for other similar popular standards in the future, potentially impacting anyone who wishes to sell to Government.'

I love this bit, it's pure fear and fantasy. 

By conflating strict OpenXML and transitional OpenXML to come up with the risible message of - the popular format is OpenXML which is an ISO approved open standard - then of course you can portray the actions of a Government which decides not to choose the popular and open choice as a source of concern.  However, fortunately the Government are no fools and are likely to know full well that transitional OpenXML which is both the popular and the default for Office 2013 and Office 2010 is not an open standard and its continued use will only increase lock-in. 

By allowing OpenXML to stand as an open standard then purely because of interactions with others (Office 2010 only writes transitional but reads strict whilst Office 2013 defaults to transitional) then transitional OpenXML (the not 'open' standard) for .docx will continue to grow. MSFT has had plenty of time to get rid of transitional OpenXML and it has chosen not to - for obvious reasons. That won't stop endless copy drones repeating the message at Government though.

'We believe very strongly that the current proposal is likely to increase costs'

Well, adoption of the open standard strict Open XML will require everyone to use Office 2013 and also make sure they're using a compatible operating system - windows 7 or 8. So, it's likely that choosing it will incur a lot of costs.

Naturally, because a lot of documents are in non open standard formats such as the transitional OpenXML format of .docx then there is high degree of lock-in and the move towards an open standard will have some impact. This liability created by proprietary formats will however only increase if we continue to use them.

Fortunately there are plenty of solutions. The are many alternative systems like Libre Office but also Microsoft Office 2013 is capable of writing and reading in ODF.  So, you could quite easily adopt ODF as the file format, allow people to use Microsoft Office and any other ODF system they wish. Which after all is the point of open standards.  It's the proprietary formats that have created lock-in costs which is why this liability needs to be managed and you don't manage it by continuing to use them.

'To be very clear, we are not calling for the government to drop its proposal to use ODF. Nor are we calling for it to use only Open XML. What we are saying is that the government include BOTH Open XML and ODF. To do so offers it most flexibility, the widest compatibility and the lowest Total Cost of Ownership for everyone – government, businesses and citizens alike.'

The above is a gem. This is what I call the reasoned middle ploy. Before I explain it I thought I'd better explain my personal position. 

Most of my working life deals with competition. I find that open standards are extremely useful in ensuring you have a competitive market. I view open source as an excellent means of driving an activity to a more industrialised form by reducing barriers to entry and encouraging collaboration. I view proprietary technology to have strengths in areas such as differentials. For me, open vs proprietary is always the wrong question as both have natural strengths and weaknesses.

For a mature activity (such as word processing) then ideally you want to create a competitive market where both multiple proprietary and open source solutions can compete. The adoption of an open standard is all about reducing lock-in and encouraging a competitive market, it's not about choosing one technology over another. I personally use Microsoft Office and I view that the product is more than good enough to compete in a freely competitive market based upon an open standard document format like ODF. 

Unfortunately OpenXML is not that standard because the most popular form transitional OpenXML which is the default is not open. The best we have for an open standard is ODF which has also been adopted by Portugal and organisations like NATO.

However, if I was the Sauron of lobbying then I'd be promoting the image of extremes (proprietary vs open) with our choice as the reasoned middle ground.  Being evil (as Sauron is) then I'd even get some of my cohorts to create a fictitious extreme. In this case you can't do that because the Government has been clear on its focus about competitive markets and it's not about technology solutions (open vs proprietary) but document formats.

Hence you're limited to promoting choice i.e. you should be free to choose any 'open standard' you wish even when the 'open standard' has two versions of which the popular one isn't open. That's the problem with OpenXML. It is unlikely to reduce lock-in and enable that competitive market because it contains the transitional OpenXML format (the not open, default version) which is likely to dominate.

Microsoft should have removed transitional OpenXML but it chose not to. It's only option is to persuade people to vote for it and gloss over the issue of strict vs transitional. This means it has to take a tone of being the reasonable ground even when its position isn't this. Which leads me to my final comment on the post.

'please do take a few minutes to have your voice heard and respond before the consultation closes on 26th February 2014.'

This is what I called the late surge. As Sauron then I would prepare lots of ground work beforehand, set-up a media storm and then whip up a frenzy.  Lobbyists tend to be a fairly smart and devious bunch (it comes with the turf). If your case is weak (and you know this) then with careful messaging, some fear, a bit of the reasoned middle and a late surge you can often sway the day. 

Does it surprise me that MSFT has left it to the last few days to rally the troops? Not really but it could be coincidence. Will they win? Will they convince UK Government to abandon its desire to see a competitive market formed based upon open standards which help reduce lock-in and allow for truly competitive products both open source and proprietary? 

Well, that really does depend upon you. It's time for you to do your part and take a bit of your time and respond to the consultation. You've got until the 26th February which isn't long.

As for Microsoft. Well, I happen to use Microsoft Office products particularly Microsoft Excel and so I hope they just adopt ODF and compete on better products. They're a great company. They've a new CEO - Satya Nadella - whom I once spent some time talking with over the whole issue of strategic play, competition and evolution (see below). He's a really smart cookie, a decent chap and I've got high hopes for them.

I do hope MSFT embraces a more positive approach to standards. Microsoft is more than good enough to compete using ODF. I wish they would just compete because they do a ton of cool stuff from Kinect to the much anticipated and somewhat magical illumiroom. I'm hoping for more magic in the future.

i.e. a bit more Gandalf and a lot less Sauron.