November 23, 2007

GNOME Foundation defends OOXML involvement

Author: Bruce Byfield

The GNOME Foundation has issued a statement in response to recent accusations that it has been supporting the acceptance of Microsoft's Office Open XML format (OOXML) as an ECMA standard at the expense of the Open Document Format (ODF), the open standard used by OpenOffice.org, KOffice and other free software office applications. However, whether the statement's attempt at logical rebuttal will do anything to reduce the emotions or altruism behind the criticisms is anybody's guess.

The core issue is simple enough. It arose because Jody Goldberg, the lead maintainer for the Gnumeric spreadsheet, asked the Foundation to support his continued work on TC45-M, the EMCA technical committee that was working to improve the proposal for the ECMA 376 standard for OOXML -- work that is also widely seen as increasing OOXML's chances of becoming an ISO/IEC standard, which it failed to do in September. Goldberg had previously been representing Novell on the committee, and, after he left the company, the GNOME Foundation had agreed to make him its representative on the committee.

What complicates the issue is the circumstantial evidence that makes the Foundation appear to be supporting OOXML as a standard while marginalizing ODF. Despite the fact that GNOME founder Miguel de Icaza does not currently sit on the Foundation board, his work on bringing Microsoft technologies such as .NET and Silverlight to GNU/Linux is often regarded as the Foundation's policy rather his personal opinion. Consequently, when de Icaza referred to OOXML last September as a "superb standard" that was the victim of hostile propaganda, many members of the free software community regarded his comments as a sell-out by GNOME itself.

Similarly, in the wake of last year's Microsoft-Novell agreement, the fact that Goldberg had represented Novell is also regarded as suspicious in some quarters. Nor did many soften their views when Goldberg blogged that implementing ODF support in Gnumeric was "significantly more difficult" than adding OOXML support.

In context, Goldberg was talking only in technical terms, and, considering that compatibility with MS Excel has always been a goal for Gnumeric, the relative ease of OOXML support is probably not surprising. However, taken out of context, and added to the revelation in the same blog entry that Goldberg was in touch with Brian Jones, a Microsoft employer heavily involved in the promotion of OOXML, was enough to damn Goldberg in many people's eyes.

The controversy emerged last month on the Open Document Fellowship mailing list. When Russell Ossendryver of Worldlabel.com, best known in the community for his sponsorship last year of an OpenOffice.org template competition, wrote an open letter to the GNOME Foundation in his blog about what seemed to be happening, it was rapidly Slashdotted under the title "GNOME Foundation Helping OOXML?."

Jeff Waugh, the press officer on the GNOME Foundation Board, replied to the Slashdot story in the accompanying comments, but, in the past month, the issue has continued to simmer. In private correspondence, Ossendryver quotes both Andy Updegrove, the well-known standards expert and blogger, and Alberto Barrionuevo of Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, who has been active on ISO committees, as expressing concerns about the Foundation's actions.

Other responses range from Roy Schestowitz's comment on the Boycott Novell site that "It seems that Gnome is becoming Microsoftââ¬â¢s catspaw to damage and slow down open source and open standards" to Richard Stallman's suggestion on the Foundation mailing list that GNOME should imitate KDE, and "make an announcement equally unhelpful to Microsoft's promotion of OOXML." In addition, Stallman recently urged the Foundation not to delay its statement, prompting an explanation from Waugh that the delay was due to his personal illness.

Meanwhile, the negative reactions caused Goldberg to tell Linux.com, "It has been disheartening to take friendly fire from the FLOSS community who did not bother to contact me to find out what was actually happening. This entire episode seems like a self inflicted wound. The community is so busy worrying that MS will mis-represent my participation in ECMA, that it is doing it for them."

The GNOME Foundation's position

However, the Foundation news release is not quite the repudiation of OOXML that Stallman seems to have expected. Admittedly, Waugh, writing on behalf of the board, states that "We believe that ODF delivers the best opportunity for industry and government to collaborate on an open document standard, to drive unprecedented innovation, productivity and public transparency." The release goes on to say that "Jody [Goldberg]'s participation in TC45-M does not indicate endorsement for, or contribution to, ISO standardisation of the Microsoft Office Open XML formats." During the standards process, Waugh writes, Microsoft has behaved in an "abusive manner of an unreformed, convicted monopolist with no passion for true industry collaboration."

In addition, the release also warns the community against taking a "black and white" approach to standards, arguing that to do so could result in restrictions on innovation as serious as those caused by patents. Already, Waugh suggests, the lobbying process for both OOXML and ODF threatens to create an "erosion of trust" in the standards process.

Much of the release is devoted to a defense of Goldberg and his involvement. According to the release, in the past, Goldberg "has raised hundreds of issues with the documentation of the format, which will demonstrate a significant, material, on-going benefit to FLOSS implementations of OOXML and as a result, to users of FLOSS products that require such interoperability."

Goldberg himself gives a similar justification of his involvement when he tells Linux.com, "I advocate that the FLOSS community, and especially [OpenOffice.org]
developers take part in ECMA's TC45 when it re-opens for comments. Whether ECMA-376 becomes an ISO standard or not, it is a major format, and clearer the specification, the easier it will be to free the data previously locked in MS Office."

Implied but not stated in either the Foundation's nor Goldberg's comments is the conviction that OOXML will either eventually become an official standard because of the resources that Microsoft can bring to bear on this goal, or become an unofficial standard because of the numbers who use its office products. By participating in the official effort, the argument seems to be, the free software community has a stronger chance of being able to support OOXML to the benefit of users.

A resolution or a confirmation?

Looked at by itself, the GNOME Foundation's position sounds rational and pragmatic. However, whether the issue is a matter for reason or practicality is debatable. For one thing, although the Foundation understands the paranoia in the free software community about anything to do with Microsoft, clearly it failed to understand the uncertainty generated by its own actions and the activities of those peripherally associated with it.

Just as clearly, for those who raised their concerns in the first place, the issue is not concerned with logic but emotional allegiances and ethics. Although you can build a strong case that free software projects only harm themselves when supporting Microsoft, and that OOXML will likely be a moving target that is changed whenever Microsoft chooses, many of those who object to GNOME's actions will not be arguing in those terms.

Instead, I suspect that many in the community would agree with Ossendryver's statement on his blog that "The participation of GNOME in ECMA TC45ââ¬â¢s apparent subversion of the standards process is a major disservice to FOSS and all in the community who have worked so hard for open platforms and open standards." From this position, what matters is loyalty -- and that, for many, seems to mean support only for ODF and a complete boycott of any efforts to make OOXML a standard. Far from clarifying matters, the Foundation's statement may very well serve only to confirm this position and to justify the paranoia about its motives.

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