Dr. Phatak speaks…and the world learns

I first met Dr. Phatak at the Red Hat Summit in New Orleans in 2005. Dr. Phatak exemplifies what Amartya Sen lovingly calls The Argumentative Indian. Dr. Phatak is passionate, well educated, articulate, and most of all, sincerely committed to raising the standards in India to the highest levels. After spending time with him in Mumbai (aka Bombay), I truly envied those students fortunate enough to have him as a mentor and a teacher.

Dr. Phatak has just posted a lengthy letter explaining his history and role in the process of India’s (negative) vote on OOXML. His accounting makes clear the depths to which one company will sink to assault individuals, institutions, even sovereign governments in order to maintain selfish advantage. It makes clear that when companies practice zero-sum capitalism, which allows them to discount all the harm they do while counting fully all the rewards that they reap, society as a whole gains nothing.

There is nothing the least bit ironic about Dr. Phatak’s anguish suffered by the actions of Microsoft, but there is something deeply ironic about what Microsoft has done since causing him injury. Namely, last week Microsoft announced that not only would Office 2007 Service Pack 2 support the ODF (Open Document Format) standard, but the productivity suite would not offer support for the ISO standard version of Microsoft’s own OOXML (Office Open XML) format until its next major version, release date unknown. (Credit to Neil McAllister for his reporting.)

It is tempting to cheer when a bully bloodies its own nose, but we should focus instead on the courageous actions of those who stood their ground, despite incredible odds. Dr. Phatak’s anguish and his vigorous defense of IIT Bombay reminds all of us that none of our freedoms were easily won, and that if we do not protect them, they may be easily lost or traded for small money that will cost us dearly in the long run. The best way to celebrate the courage of Dr. Phatak is to practice that courage ourselves and to defeat all who would try to deprive us, deceive us, or worse. I encourage you again to read his account and, perhaps, write your own.