ODF vs. OOXML

This is kind of outside my usual bailiwick — or not, I guess — but I read an article on Groklaw concerning the recent brouhaha over Stallman allegedly calling Miguel de Icaza (the guy behind Mono) a traitor — allegedly — for developing Mono. (One line summary: Stallman didn’t call him a traitor over Mono, he called him a traitor for acting as a schill for Microsoft and in particular OOXML.) If you’re interested in open standards, digital archaeology, how standards processes work, and the whole philosophy of free software, the entire — lengthy — article is very much worth reading. This email (to Miguel) in particular struck a nerve:

Re:OOXML. (Score:5, Insightful)
by stilborne (85590) on Monday September 10 2007, @10:41PM (#20548069) Homepage

> but we have to support them both *anyways*, so its not like its a big deal.

Holy mackerel.

First: I really don’t care to get into a pissing match about the deficiencies of OOXML as a possible standard (they are legion and often fundamental; and whether or not you understand that and/or choose to minimize the severity of these things changes nothing). I will say that I’m very happy to finally see at least *some* open documentation for the new Microsoft Office format; that has to make things easier for the people implementing filters. As such I am completely unsurprised that those people are happier than they were a couple years ago. In fact, I’d be surprised if they weren’t. That part is probably something you and I agree on =)

However the quote above is utterly shocking. Let me explain what I mean:

You are right that we have to support both OOXML and ODF out of practicality. But you know what? That sucks. It would be best for everyone if there was only one format to support. Nobody would lose in that scenario, except perhaps the owners of companies with business models that depend on format variance to sell their product.

In the case of document format storage, a standard is truly important because formats (poor or not) that eventually lose implementations over time carve out blank spaces in our history once we can’t read them properly. These same formats are also the source of certain information inequalities in society (e.g. those who can’t obtain an implementation for financial, social or political reasons). This may not matter so much for Acme Inc’s quarterly reports but it sure does for government, health and other socially vital information. Remember when some hurricane Katrina victims couldn’t use the FEMA website because they had slightly older computers? This isn’t a made up boogyman, this is stuff that bites us as a society fairly regularly. Now imagine a hundred years from now when we can still read the constitutions of our countries, research papers, poetry and other examples of human kind’s great literary works that are hundreds or even thousands of years old … but can’t read the documents we’re creating at the start of the 21st century. How will we learn from our history if we can’t study it fully?

Getting proprietary formats out of the way as soon as possible so that we do not extend this mess any further than necessary is absolutely the responsible thing to do in light of our (hopeful) future.

By allowing OOXML to pass from “specification” to “international standard” would be doing exactly that: extending the problem as it will give years if not decades more life to the format. If OOXML was rationally implementable and properly documented, it wouldn’t be as big of an issue. It would be, as you put it, simply suboptimal. The fact of the matter is that OOXML is not rationally implementable and not properly documented. That’s why it lost the recent vote; it wasn’t because of lobbying (and trying to imply that when Microsoft got its hand caught in the cookie jar is pretty ballsy, by the way). Are some interests acting out of concerns for their business models or pet projects when they rally for ODF and against OOXML? I’m sure they are; but that alone isn’t reason to dismiss the fact that OOXML is problematic and that we don’t need two standards (any more than it is to dismiss OOXML just because it comes from Microsoft).

So please, admire OOXML for what it is: a step forward in documenting what historically has been one of the more pernicious sets of file formats we’ve had to deal with; but don’t mistake that for being a reason to make it an international standard which will only prolong the issues that are part and parcel of the Microsoft Office formats, even in this current version of the specification.

I know that having a bunch of people shit on you in public sucks major donkey nuts and certainly would put most rational people into a rather ungracious mood, but please think above that noise and consider with your intelligent mind exactly what you are promoting here by saying “it’d be fine as an ISO standard”.

ODF is currently incomplete (formulas, blah blah blah) but has exactly the right foundations, the right momentum for support across the industry, and the missing parts are being filled in very nicely. Properly, I might add. Those are the attributes that people who care about Freedom should appreciate, respect and support. In this case, that support means being willing to reject a competing specification that is not well suited for such international ratification. And that, in a nutshell, is why this is precisely a “big deal”.

(As an aside, this also shows how much more intelligent the level of debate on Slashdot often gets.)