What’s in a label? ODF vs. OOXML and Open Standards

The OSI adopted a mandate of working on Open Standards two years ago. We put forward a statement on requirements for an Open Standard which boiled down to a simple proposition: if the standard could not be implemented fully and faithfully in Open Source, the standard should never be declared nor considered open.

The OSI’s Open Standards Requirements seem like such a simple and obvious rule, not unlike the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, a rule that was simplicity itself:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this legislation by appropriate legislation.

Yet as simple as that amendment was, several states buried their own evil intentions in page after page after page of laws designed to deprive former slaves and their descendants of their constitutional rights. History teaches that merely promising freedom to all who wear the label of “citizen” is not nearly enough. There must be evidence that the freedoms are effective. As much as we would like to believe that a simple statement of rules for governing standards should be sufficient, nothing in human history tells us that anything balancing power and freedom is simple. Especially when the powerful take an interest.

There is a second and much more contemporaneous reason we should look hard at labels. Microsoft created a labeling program for hardware to promote systems that would be “Vista Capable”. Such labels were a promise because they were affixed to machines well in advance of the much-delayed Vista operating system. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Microsoft claiming that Microsoft falsely advertised various PCs as “Vista Capable” when they didn’t really meet the specifications. Email messages unsealed in the case (and as reported by the New York Times) makes me doubt the integrity of Microsoft’s adherence to their own self-defined standards.

There are many international standards bodies that decide many international standards. Who should decide what is fair labor? Fair trade? Sustainable agriculture? The United Nations takes a position on defining human rights in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but who follows this declaration? What are the real penalties of flouting this declaration? In some cases, these words on a page do mean there will be actions taken, but not in all cases. We know we cannot let ourselves believe that just because the rule says “This is so” that it is so. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

The International Standards Organization is one standards body with a track record of producing labels-standards- that mean a lot. One could say that ISO is not just a label, but a brand. For many and good reasons, the ODF team have sought to make their document format an ISO standard, and that brings us to the title of this blog posting. After refusing for years to document their document, file, and media formats (with testimonies in court challenging and defending the strategic reasons why they refused to do so), Microsoft has chosen a most disruptive way to gain advantage at the expense of everyone else, including ISO.

First, by pursuing an ISO standard of their own at the same time ODF is working through the ISO process, they make a mockery of the value of standards when they could be supporting the consolidation of standards (the old joke “the reason I love standards is that there are so many of them”). Second, by treating the ISO process as if it is a corrupt government on sale to the highest bidder, they attack the integrity of the ISO brand. Third, by using economic leverage to encourage one set of voters to the polls and by using procedural techniques to ensure that another set never make it, or that they don’t get to vote on what’s meaningful, they undermine the faith of the world in the ISO process. And finally, by cheerfully ignoring all of this and trying to focus attention on their new-found love of open standards, open source, and openness, Microsoft hopes to convince you that you need only pay attention to the label, not what it means, not who’s behind it, not the brand, and certainly not their intentions.

But if you read this far, you’re smart enough to look behind the claims of a label and determine whether its promises can be judged true. Now is the time to stand up and say no to OOXML, saving us all generations of technical servitude, commercial disappointment, and individual shame. Support ODF, support true open standards, and enjoy the support you can get from open source.