Special: Defending Openness

Posted by tadelste on Mar 8, 2006 6:31 AM
Lxer.com; By Glyn Moody

If this threat is not dealt with swiftly and effectively, the main use of the word “open” in computing one day might be by anthropologists and historians as a quaint label for a sub-grouping in the increasingly marginalized hacker culture.

“Free" and “open" are such small words. And yet for hackers, they are among the most charged in the English language. The great debate over whether to use the term “free software" - with the emphasis on freedom – or “open source", with the emphasis on practicality, is alive and kicking furiously even today. But it would be a tragedy if this factionalism obscured a profound threat to the very concept of openness.

The background is the growing battle over the office suite. Until recently, Microsoft Office held undisputed sway over this sector, and alternative options from Lotus or Corel made absolutely no difference to its dominant market share. Even the appearance of OpenOffice.org 1.0 four years ago had little impact.

But things have changed dramatically with the release of OpenOffice.org 2.0. Not so much because of the software – even though it is a big improvement over the useful but unspectacular version 1.0 – but because of the file format it employs. The formalization of the OpenDocument Format ODF by the international standards body OASIS has transformed the office suite landscape.

For the first time, there is now an official standard for office application file formats, and one that is completely open and vendor-neutral. Where before rival office suites merely presented proprietary alternatives to Microsoft's own closed standards, ODF allows manufacturers to rally round a common standard. The list of those already supporting ODF is already quite impressive, and the roll-call seems certain to grow. And the more that join, the more powerful the standard becomes.

The power of that common standard can be seen in the fact that it was chosen over Microsoft's own office formats by Massachusetts in a by-now famous decision. The shock of that event for friends of proprietary lock-in can be gauged by the violence of the response – a violence that ultimately led to the resignation of Peter Quinn, the man who was behind the move in the first place.

It is not hard to see why there should be such a tempest. If the Massachusetts decision is enacted, other US states may follow. In Europe, the European Union is already looking seriously at making ODF its first official standard for office documents. Once the dominoes start tumbling, Microsoft knows that one of its core products could be seriously threatened, and with it the company's profits, share price and - ultimately - future.

Microsoft's extreme concern at this turn of events explains its sudden decision to submit its own office formats as official standards – although the terms of reference for the process are not quite what anybody else would think of as a normal standards ratification process. In this way, it presumably hopes to match ODF's claim that it is a true, de jure not de facto, standard.

Even more dangerously, the company has named these new formats Microsoft Office Open XML. Note the word “open" here: Microsoft is using a term which hitherto stood in stark opposition to everything the company represents. By employing “open" in this way – however apparently minor or unimportant – it has begun a subtle process of devaluation.

All it needs to do is to drop in the word “open" at various points in its product line, and the concept starts to lose the force it currently enjoys, and all the “real" opens – open source, OpenDocument etc. – are diminished as a result. In fact, this process is already underway: Microsoft has announced the “Open Packaging Conventions", which form part of its PDF rival XPS (XML Paper Specification). To add insult to injury, Microsoft hammers home its new passion for “openness" by explaining:

The Open Packaging Conventions use open technologies such as XML and the ZIP archive file format and are used in XPS Documents as well as the new Office Open XML Formats.

If Microsoft is allowed to continue with this ploy, “open" will gradually become just another generic marketing term like “leading-edge" or “user-friendly": a term that everyone uses and which no longer has any real value.

This is potentially an extremely damaging strategy, since it is hard to put back the power in a word once it has been drained away. Perhaps the only response is constant and vocal rejection of anything the Microsoft brands as “open" unless it is truly and completely open, through a detailed repudiation of any false claims that it makes in this regard.

But this must be done now, not after Microsoft has muddied the linguistic waters to such an extent that “open" no longer means anything. If this threat is not dealt with swiftly and effectively, the main use of the word “open" in computing one day might be by anthropologists and historians as a quaint label for a sub-grouping in the increasingly marginalized hacker culture.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.blogspot.com

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
open vs. free Libervis 16 2,585 Mar 18, 2006 3:43 PM
Truth in labeling garyedwards 3 2,409 Mar 18, 2006 11:31 AM
Open (c) NoCaDrummer 1 2,526 Mar 18, 2006 10:57 AM
agreed jsusanka 0 2,380 Mar 8, 2006 9:25 AM

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