November 7, 2007

What's up at the OpenDocument Foundation?

Author: Joe Barr

The OpenDocument Foundation, founded five years ago by Gary Edwards, Sam Hiser, and Paul "Buck" Martin (marbux) with the express purpose of representing the OpenDocument format in the "open standards process," has reversed course. It now supports the W3C's Compound Document Format instead of its namesake ODF. Yet why this change of course has occurred is something of a mystery.

Hiser has made several entries on his blog recently about the foundation's change in position, and there is an explanation of the reasoning for it on the front page of the foundation's Web site, in a long, rambling discourse. If I read it correctly, Hiser and the foundation are saying the ODF is no good because it doesn't work with Microsoft document formats, while CDF will.

In a story for two years ago, Hiser defends the ODF against attacks in a letter written by Microsoft's Alan Yates, saying that it "contains a farrago of false declarations and is full up with psychological transference in which the gamut of Microsoft's own malpractices are attributed to their rivals. In its way, the letter is a typical Microsoft communication."

In June of this year, Hiser blogged that "ODF is developed and maintained in an open, multi-vendor, multi-stakeholder process that protects against control by a single organization. OOXML is less open in its development and maintenance, despite being submitted to a formal standards body, because control of the standard ultimately wrests [sic] with one organization."

Neither of those views -- from his article on or his blog entry -- dovetails with the timeline or the explanation given on the OpenDocument Foundation site.

In a recent post on his blog, Hiser proclaims that "we at the OpenDocument Foundation have been displeased with the direction of ODF development this year. We find that ODF is not the open format with the open process we thought it was or originally intended it to be." Note that this, too, contradicts the view he expressed in June.

In a later post, Hiser complains that "Among ODF's weaknesses is its provenance from a specific application and the unwillingness of its originators to release it into the Bazaar. Merchants of irony will note this is the identical problem that paralyzes the incumbent gorilla's format."

Of course, that's not exactly true. The ODF is an open standard, period. The "incumbent gorilla's format" is not. Yes, the ODF is backed by Sun and OpenOffice.Org, and Microsoft Office formats by Redmond. But for you and me, the critical difference is that with ODF, anyone, everyone, can obtain the standard and write applications that can read, display, and modify the data. They are all about interoperability. Microsoft's formats, on the other hand, are not. They are designed to prolong and maintain the company's monopoly. Apparently, Hiser is no longer concerned with such niceties, which he now dismisses as "mind-numbing repetition of platitudes about choice, openness, value & interoperability.".

Bloggers are having a field day with the issue. The HackFUD site probably has the best, most educational treatment I've seen on the issue from either the trade press or the blogosphere. Its take on the situation is this: "As far as the Open Document Format is concerned, the debate is over. It's a globally recognised standard. Full stop. The only people who are debating about it are the people involved in the OpenDocument Foundation, and as far as I can tell, this comprises of a grand total of two or three people."

To my question about who the foundation's members are, and who is runs it, Hiser says, "Marbux is director of legal affairs for the Foundation. I am business affairs. Gary Edwards is president and founder. It's a 501(c)3." But he says that the foundation's days are numbered. "The Foundation has no remaining purpose, since we have ended our involvement in ODF. The entity will be wound down. Our development efforts will continue in some constructive form."

As to the apparent contradiction between his position in June and today, he says, "You're quoting from a piece I drafted in January and February and which wasn't published until May. Our problems with the direction of the format's development didn't become obvious to us (conclusively) until March or April. We continued to try to influence the direction from inside until July, when marbux and Gary published "Game Over ODF?"

I asked Louis Suarez-Potts,'s manager of community relations, what he knew of the OpenDocument Foundation these days. He said, "I think their Web site can answer far better than I." A quick look at the site shows that the links on the left side of the page produce code 404 "document not found" errors.

Suarez-Potts also took a dig at Hiser's new favorite format. "I think it's worthwhile to note how many implementations there are or will be of the CDF.... Tell me if you find one."


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