Why criticise OpenXML now?

Some people raised the question why I have chosen to become verbal about OpenXML and Novell’s activities to include support for it in OpenOffice.org, and whether this has to do with the MS/Novell deal and the related public outcry. The answer is no.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) is not against Novell, we’re not against Microsoft, and we’re not against any other company. There are actions by these companies that we disagree with, and there are actions that we agree with. Naturally the percentage of that agreement and disagreement varies between companies and over time.

FSFE and Microsoft

When studying the relationship with Microsoft, there were indeed many interactions — owed to the fact that Microsoft currently has a desktop monopoly and its business practices have been questionable to the extent that SUN and Real Networks filed antitrust complaints against Microsoft with the European Commission. Similar complaints have been filed by various parties all around the world, and generally these were considered valid by the relevant competition authorities, although the countermeasures taken were generally not effective.

When the European investigation began, FSFE worked together with the Samba Team to supply technological information about how Microsoft had abused its desktop monopoly to leverage it into the workgroup server market, actions which also impacted negatively on Sambas ability to write interoperable software.

It should be noted that the relationship between Microsoft and Samba was initially very good and characterised by cooperation and trust. Microsoft gave the Samba Team technical specification for their software, and the Samba Team wrote interoperable software. The reason for Free Software’s part in the antitrust case was that Microsoft unilaterally stopped the cooperation once they had sufficient leverage into the workgroup server market and even stopped participating to the underlying Common Internet File System (CIFS) process that Microsoft initially launched.

FSFE’s role in this case was — with the help of the Samba Team developers — to represent the interests of the Samba Team and other Free Software projects, and restore the ability of Free Software developers to write interoperable software. We continued with the case when SUN and Real Networks, the initial parties to this case, decided to drop their engagement after settlement with Microsoft. We continued because the offers that Microsoft has been making on its interoperability information will not allow a Free Software implementation. Once that information is released in ways that will allow competition by interoperable Free Software, we will have done our job.

But even while we were (and still are) pursuing that issue, we gave them the benefit of the doubt when they changed their portfolio of Shared Source licenses. Naturally, we realise that most of their Shared Source licenses are still proprietary and they have yet to release any significant software under the more free licenses. But we still gave them positive recognition for it.

It was unfortunate that only very short time later FSFE caught Microsoft red-handed manipulating the outcome of a UN contributory conference. Because it was FSFE’s work that Microsoft was having misrepresented, we informed people about it immediately. Do people really think we should not have publicised this?

Nonetheless we keep discussing with Microsoft about when and how Microsoft will become a Free Software company, because we know that one day they will. They will be the last to adopt Free Software broadly, and although one of their representatives tried to explain to me that the Microsoft/Novell deal was such a change, it is still too early for that, really.

So we will see more attempts by Microsoft to save its old business model, which necessarily involves damaging Free Software and Open Standards. Since we cannot allow that to happen, we will prevent that whenever we can.

But we also realise that one day they will be willing to make more substantial steps towards Free Software, and at that time we will be helping them to make them. But as long as we are waiting for that moment we will keep in mind that Microsoft is a very shrewd player in the field that has historically managed to judo much larger players into difficult situations. Today they also have vast resources at their disposal.


Better not forget that they are a crocodile, and not a lamb, and this crocodile is not yet a vegetarian.

FSFE and Novell

Having been very limited before, the interaction between Novell and FSFE became more intensive when Novell bought the SuSE distribution. FSFE’s representatives had regular discussions with employees of Novell and the connection was always friendly and cooperative.

Indeed, if one asked for my opinion on Novell buying SuSE, up until the Microsoft/Novell deal the answer was always positive. Novell cleaned up SuSE quite a bit and finally released YaST, SuSE’s setup and installation tool, as Free Software under the GNU GPL. Of course last time I checked SuSE still was one of the messiest distributions in terms of mixing proprietary and Free Software, but the overall influence of Novell seemed positive.

When Novell announced its deal with Microsoft, we were outright surprised. It seemed to make no sense, and my second thought was that they were either bedazzled by Microsofts judo, or desperate for fast cash. And yes, FSFE remains critical of that deal, although we did not add much to the global outcry because we felt that most of the relevant points were being made well enough by others.

However, disagreement with that deal is not why I have chosen to criticise Novell for their announcement to add support for OpenXML to OpenOffice.org, and why I have added another more generic OpenXML wrap-up with additional points and depth. I criticised that particular decision only because I consider that very action harmful to Free Software.

I don’t know whether Novell will have 150 developers working for the next year to include OpenXML support in OpenOffice.org for a release in early 2008. Because this is what will be needed for a competitive implementation according to a calculation by Andrew Shebanow of Adobe, based on Microsoft’s own numbers. I also don’t know how much additional work would be required to fully implement the proprietary infrastructure that will be needed around OpenXML to make use of its non-standard formats and how Novell is planning to do that job.

The core problem is that adding OpenXML support to OpenOffice.org does not provide additional value to anyone except Microsoft, because standards are a field where more choice means less value. Before we had the Open Document Format (ODF), the norm was to have a large amount of incomplatible proprietary formats for which support needed to be coded into every application. That made adding support to central programs such as OpenOffice.org a useful activity.

Now that we have a truly universal internationally approved ISO standard Open Document Format, the calculation changes dramatically. Deviating from that standard, helping to establish other formats that do no hold up to the same criteria, will only serve to undermine the Open Standard — to the detriment of users, vendors and economy at large.

So if Novell had 150 person years to invest into better office integration and interoperability, they should have spent it on perfecting the ODF functionality in Microsoft Office. In fact, if they are serious about their stated committment to ODF, they should have tried to put into their deal with Microsoft that they will be allowed to put the result of those 150 person years into Microsoft Office directly, ideally as the default native format.

That would have been an investment to give customers more choice and improve the marketplace — their decision to put OpenXML into OpenOffice.org was not. And since there was lack of critical analysis, and provided that Microsoft raised the stakes with the help of ECMA, it became increasingly urgent to point out why this is a bad idea, so all of us could then work together to support the truly open international ISO standard, the Open Document Format (ODF).

And this work for Open Standards is something that FSFE has been doing for many years now, be it during the UN World Summit on the Information Society, the DCOS coalition at the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF), or the Scientific Education and Learning in Freedom (SELF) project.

We plan to continue that work and if you want, you can join us in it.

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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