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Gray Knowlton's blog on Microsoft Office

Rethinking ODF leadership

Rethinking ODF leadership

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I can't help but observe the "discussion" underway with respect to spreadsheet interoperability that Rob Weir has started. Essentially Rob is complaining that Microsoft didn't implement the formula namespace of OpenOffice.

For the chair of the committee to post vitriol like this about the implementation of his own format raises a number of very concerning problems.

I'd like everyone reading the post to know that Rob was invited to participate in the DII events leading up to the SP2 release, and offered the opportunity to test the beta software specifically for the purpose of providing feedback on the implementation. Normally the chair of group of the standard being implemented would jump at the chance. Rob didn't, electing instead to wait for the shipping version and then claim that it is somehow deficient to other ODF implementations that he has deemed suitable for his purposes.

Does it make sense to have a chair for the ODF TC whose apparent mission is to create a caste system for ODF implementers? Do we really think Rob, who debates whether the tough (and publicly vetted) implementation decisions of his constituents are "malice" or "incompetence?" – is this the hallmark of a leader in the standards community striving for innovation using open technologies? Is this the characteristic that OASIS wants to promote in the development of technology standards? In Rob, do we really have a person capable of operating in a vendor-neutral forum? If departments within 18 various governments really do use ODF as their standard, should we be comfortable with an ODF TC chair that is trying very hard to discredit and divide its supporters?

Is it time for Rob to step down as chair? I think so.

I'm not saying Microsoft (or anyone) should be the chair instead, but I am saying that Rob is unfit as a leader given his inability to separate his personal venom from his role as a leader in driving the standard forward. It seems like a better approach to empower people on the ODF TC who have a long-term view of the need to enable interoperability, and to move those with more short-term vendor-oriented agendas to the side.

John Head is on point with this post. eWeek seems to be fine with SP2.

As far as I can see, the only thing that Rob is really demonstrating here is that the "grossly inadequate" formula support of ODF (those are the words of David Wheeler, leader of OpenFormula, read on for details) is causing problems with vendors implementing the standard. He instead resorts to scoring implementations based on a percentage of common ground, rather than conformance to something written on paper. This gives Rob the freedom he needs to define his own criteria for what ODF implementation is, and who is doing it according to his rules.

Rob seems to be positioning himself as the final arbiter on what is "good" ODF vs. "bad" ODF. OASIS? specification? – Unimportant when Rob Weir can arbitrarily define criteria for what he thinks is good. He's in a position where only he will declare his own ODF preferences as the blessed implementation. It seems that neither the ODF TC nor the spec matter anymore. It seems that ODF is being run by an individual.

Current ODF standards do not support formulas no matter how much Rob wishes it to be so. Implementations of ODF spreadsheets are application-dependent. ODF 1.2 is not an approved standard. OpenFormula is not an approved standard. While it may be that both are on a path to standardization in the future, today they are not. This is a situation that has been known to the ODF TC for more than 4 years, yet no solution based on an approved standard (other than Open XML) has been found. These are all indisputable facts.

In his post, Rob proposes using "legacy OO namespaces" (also declaring OpenOffice as the "current convention"). Rob's suggestion to use "legacy OO namespaces" is a reference to a vendor's product and indicates favoritism to a particular implementation. The defender of "precise, repeatable, common" seems to be abandoning that hill, hoping instead to claim for his own the dialog that Microsoft has been conducting for a long time: Interoperability requires the participation of many, and will not be defined by a standard alone. Doug covers that pretty well I think.

The irony isn't lost at all. This is the same guy who went to such a length to chastise Open XML for its undefined list styles and compatibility settings. For some reason his expectations of Open XML seem to be somewhat higher than they are for the committee he chairs. For some reason, it is ok for Rob to patch glaring holes in ODF as "current convention" and then complain vigorously about alleged dependence on Microsoft Office for implementing Open XML. This is shameful, hypocritical and warrants corrective action.

It wouldn't be such a huge deal if the tone were constructive or aimed at improving the situation. It seems he is only interested in distancing himself from scenarios where ODF can be used successfully with Microsoft Office (as well as the DII discussions where that implementation was discussed in detail during its development. Funny that he didn't show up there to share this feedback.)

Rob's conclusion on the cause of that problem:

"I was taught to never assume malice where incompetence would be the simpler explanation. But the degree of incompetence needed to explain SP2's poor ODF support boggles the mind and leads me to further uncharitable thoughts. So I must stop here"

Let's just remember that it was the ODF TC which deemed formulas "out of scope," and after 4 years, still have no solution for standardizing the definition of "Sum = 2+2." Rob says "Everyone knows what =A1+A2 means."  Really Rob?  What does it mean if A1 contains 1, and A2 contains "two"?   Would it surprise you to learn that Excel and OpenOffice produce different answers in that case?  Which one is correct? This question and a thousand more like it is why formula interoperability is hard work, and not at all the trivial matter Rob claims it is.

During the original discussion within the ODF TC, not everyone agreed with the omission of formulas from the spec… David Wheeler seemed to be pretty clear when commented on this on February 7th, 2005:

This previous comment scares me: "There are from our point of view also no interoperability issues, because the namespace prefix mechanism we have specified unambiguously specifies what syntax and semantics are used for a formula". Here's how I read that: "Every implementation must reverse engineer all other implementations' namespaces (they're not in the spec, so everyone's free to invent their own private incompatible namespaces). Then, every implementation must implement all the syntax and semantics of all other implementations' namespaces for formulas, if they wish to achive interoperability. And oh, by the way, your implementation might not implement the namespace for the document you're trying to load, so you may lose all the formulas."

I'm sure that's not what was meant, but that's how it reads to me. I hope that helps explain why I think that the current formula information in the OpenOffice specification is grossly inadequate."

So… maybe it's too easy, but "I was taught to never assume malice where incompetence would be the simpler explanation." David Wheeler saw this coming over 4 years ago, and yet, OpenFormula is not a standard today, and ODF has no definition for spreadsheet formulas. Rob tries to excuse his way around this in his post, but these comments are made by the committee that he chairs. I'll leave it to you, then, to decide between "malice" or "incompetence" of the poster who would elect to throw his own committee under the bus to get hits on his blog… or fail to take this very good advice.

By the way, it is worth noting the response to this stern (and very accurate) prediction.

"Hi David,

Thanks for the concerned comments and all the considerable effort you have put into solving this problem.  You're challenging us all to go where none have dared tread before.  So go ahead and lead the way.  You have the TC's attention.  We are listening.  As you grind out the grit of your proposal, please keep in mind that we have to fit proposed solutions into the politic of work that has already been done.  A politic that represents years of work that is just now on it's way to ratification at OASIS, and beyond to ISO.  Keep in mind also that the ISO certification comes at the request of the European Union. Time is of the essence.  Ratification perhaps trumps perfection.  At least for the moment."

This comment was from Gary Edwards, (he of "cracks in the foundation" / OpenDocument Foundation fame) who eventually left the TC and shuttered the OpenDocument Foundation. I seem to remember some dialog from Rob about Open XML being "rushed" through standardization. Funny how those things come back to haunt you.

I'm very discouraged by Rob's post. As far as I can tell, rob is playing a shell game where only his definition will be good enough for supporting ODF, and that definition will change to whatever Microsoft isn't doing.

This is far from constructive. This is not a way to foster interoperability and industry dialog. This is not a leader for people to follow.

  • I thought your quote from Wheeler was so interesting, I checked out the complete post.  To me, what is even more fascinating is that it is in response to a post that says:

    "Comment from: ca@chbs.dk


    > ...OpenDocument doesn't specify the formulars (sic) used in spreadsheets so every spreadsheet vendor

    > can implement formulars in their own way without being an open standard.

    > This way a vendor can create lock-in to their spreadsheets."

    To me, that raises a question about Mr. Weir: Do his actions amount in practise (whether intentional or not) to an attempt to create lock-in to OpenOffice as opposed to other software that supports ODF? I leave this as a question to all who wish to comment.

  • A few facts:

    1) Yes, I was invited to attend Microsoft's DII event in Redmond.  This event was schedule to occur immediately before an interoperability event organized by the OASIS ODF Adoption TC in Beijing.  I was busy helping organizing that much larger and more inclusive event, which saw the participation of IBM, Sun, Google, Novel, RedFlag and other implementers of ODF.  Microsoft was invited to that and did not attend.  Given the choice between a single-vendor event and a community-lead event, I'll jump at the opportunity to participate in a real, multi-implementation community event.

    2) Yes, I was offered a copy of the beta version of Office 2007 SP2.  But when I inquired what the license on it was, I was told by Microsoft, "We'll need to get back to you on that".  They never did.

    If Microsoft feels that they are being treated unfairly on the TC, or disagrees with any of my actions or inactions as Chair, then there is a dispute escalation process that you can avail yourself of, up through the OASIS Board of Directors, of which Microsoft is a member.  But for now I'm going to continue to call it as I see it.  

    If you read carefully, my original post was quite critical of Sun's move to ODF 1.2 draft as a default, and my previous post was critical of the CleverAge plugin's namespace treatment.  Microsoft got the brunt of the criticism, because, compared to the other implementations, SP2 did the dumbest things.  Rather than complain, you should send me a check for the QA work I'm doing on your product.

  • Please check Rob Weir's work (past and present) at the OASIS ODF TC before you start to put his leadership in question.

    As a TC member, it is hard to me to read that bullshit you've wrote: Grow up ! (and if you are concerned with ODF, ask me why did you guys didn't implemented cryptography if it is fully documented on the specification...).

  • @Ian: "Do his actions amount in practise (whether intentional or not) to an attempt to create lock-in to OpenOffice as opposed to other software that supports ODF? I leave this as a question to all who wish to comment."

    Sorry to be rude, but this is clearly a very stupid insinuation:

    1. There is no lock-in in OpenOffice possible, as the other software that supports ODF 1.1 (including the CleverAge add-in) uses the same formula syntax... (except Office 2007 SP2, of course)

    2. ODF 1.2, already supported by OpenOffice 3, uses the new OpenFormula syntax. Do you suggest that Rob wants to lock-in OpenOffice users in OpenOffice 2 ?

  • Rob, thanks for the comment. There was actually more than one DII event where you would have been able to attend and provide comment. And as I saw it (I was in the room for part of one of them), there was definitely more than one vendor in the room that day.

    In terms of the EULA on the SP2 Beta, I don't have visibility into how that transpired. If that is the case, it seems a relatively minor hurdle to overcome... especially if you were motivated to provide feedback to make the implementation better.

    Regarding the escalation process, you might misunderstand my comment. I'm not in a position to offer feedback on how anyone is treated in the committee.

    My concern is that I see you as the co-chair of the TC AND the chief critic of its implementations. Sort of like the Olympic rules committee conducting a blog on which competitors they thought performed better in a particular event, and discussing thier interpretation of some vague aspects of the rules along the way... it's not clear to me when you act as an engineer at IBM, the ODF TC co-chair, or just Rob.

    I think if you're going to be this critical of Sun or Microsoft or anyone else, perhaps you might not be the right person to also lead the discussion that is intended to be vendor neutral and helping to create a standard.

  • Jomar, I'm not the one swearing at people I don't know over the internet... (shrug).

    See above. My issue isn't with how the commttee is run. My issue is the use of the chair of the committee as a bully pulpit to limit ODF implementation credit to a short list of favorites.

  • Gray, are you saying that the problems I reported with SP2 are accidental, and that if I had persevered in getting a copy of the beta, and reported these bugs earlier, that they would have been fixed?  If so, this appears to contradict what Doug is saying.  He is saying the SP2 is working as designed.  Which is it?

    My web site makes it clear who I am speaking for on the blog.  Your difficulty in understanding my "Who is Rob Weir" page does not seem to be shared by many.

    As for who is dividing the ODF community, I'd suggest the scrutiny should go to the vendor who creates a divergent, non-interoperable, non-conforming implementation, not to the person who points this out.  You seem to be shying from the real issue and trying to kill the messenger.

    In the end my arguments are persuasive based on the breadth of the analysis, the clear articulation of the facts, and the use of plentiful clear examples.  I have an long history of straightforward analysis in this area.  I don't need to invoke my position with the ODF TC or IBM to establish my authority on questions in this field.  The authority of my posts rests on my reputation, and you can't take that away.

  • Rob, I'm not sure what made you think that anyone feels they're being treated unfairly on the TC.  But just to be clear, I'll share publicly here with you something I've said many times to my colleagues at Microsoft: you've been gracious and supportive of our participation in the ODF TC.  That said, I do agree with Gray's comments about your actions outside the context of the TC.

  • Rob, by "the real issue" are you referring to the lack of formula support in ODF? Maybe I'm not understanding. In the end, it isn't in the spec, and the implementation in SP2 is what it is. Had you tested the beta and particiated in DII, who knows what would have been different. But at least that conversation would have taken place in a forum designed to solicit the very feedback you so freely and negatively provided after the release, when the only one who could benefit from that is you.

    I have been reading your blog (as you know) for about 3 years, and all I have seen from you is anti-Microsoft & Open XML posts, the occasional discussion on ODF, and various other unrelated topics such as stamps or photography. I've never seen anything else.

    And let's just agree to disagree that the web address where your comments are posted is somehow a sufficient distinction between your status as a vendor and as a spokesperson for the ODF TC.

    I'll grant you that personal opinion is a personal opinion (after all, my blog is the same.)

  • I'm a commercial support provider of business IT (which includes office software), and I have opportunities to influence the both procurement policies of my business' customer and our country's government. I have both the interests of my customers and my fellow taxpayers at heart when I consider the practices of major software vendors like Microsoft.

    To my mind, it's absolutely vital that someone with Rob's inside understanding and ability articulate the situation - particularly with widely used (and generally unquestioned) packages like MS Office - with factual support and therefore credibility.

    Gray, you'll know that the last time you came down here to NZ to try to sway the NZ Standards organisation in advance of the MS OOXML vote, your credibility (and, by extension, that of Microsoft) suffered a major blow. I won't go into the details, except to say that Microsoft Trinidad and Tobago somehow got into the act and made a personal attack on someone who was acting as a very knowledgeable advisor to Standards NZ, but whose position was contrary to what Microsoft believed was the best outcome... for Microsoft. See this if you need a reminder: http://computerworld.co.nz/news.nsf/news/0B47485921D44083CC2574110068B1B6

    Bringing documents like Rob's analysis of the current state of ODF support in MS Office 2007 to the attention of our government policy makers is simply reinforcing that very unfavourable impression you left.

    I suggest that Microsoft stop trying to break practical interoperability in the interest of monopoly preservation, and actually do the right thing: compete on merit, provide *practical interoperability* and stop trying to slant the playing field.


    Dave Lane

  • Interesting persective Dave. Regarding my "credibility" -- allow me to point you at the NZOSS blog that was posted after the event:

    "Of course the technical debate was rigorous and sometimes very detailed, but it was also valuable as the Mircosoft expert from Redmond, Gray Knowlton, asserted. That was also the direct feedback I received from all members of the SNZ committee present. Indeed, they seemed pleased that the meeting hadn't descended into name calling and zealotry that people like yourself and Rod Drury had been predicting." - http://nzoss.org.nz/node/181.

    I'd say everyone there was satisfied about how the conversation went. While I was disappointed we got a disapprove vote, I was glad to participate in the forum.

    The other situation you refer to has nothing to do with me, so I'm not sure why you bring it up.

    It's great that you are seeking this level of depth on how these formats are implemented. I'm sure you're reading Doug's post as well, which has some interesting counter-points to Rob, I'm sure you'll agree that having all the facts is important.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Dave,

    I think it's best to let bygones be bygones to be honest. But, as you brought it up.

    As a member of the Standards New Zealand advisory group to which you refer I too was pretty annoyed at what transpired. That said, I think that it was also inappropriate for members of the committee to be 'advising' other national standards bodies without at least the courtesy of letting both Standards NZ and their peers on the advisory group know. I found Matthew to be a really hard working and technically smart member of the advisory group and indeed I've also been a fairly vocal supporter of some of the recent work he has done in opposing s92a of the Copyright Act.

    In terms of the substantive issue, I can't help but think that Microsoft are being held to a different standard than that which was claimed of them during the IS29500 standardization process. Had they claimed during that process that other vendors looking to implement Open XML in their products needed to provide *practical interoperability* then it would have caused an uproar.  I fully expect Microsoft to implement OpenFormula once it's been approved. But, solutions that require reverse engineering of proprietary implementations to achieve 'practical interoperability' are not the answer. Indeed it was the pain of having to try and do that with the legacy Microsoft Office binary formats that lead to Microsoft Office implementing ECMA 376 in the first place.

    As to your comments about 'influencing' Government procurement policy here in New Zealand; I'd like to assure other readers of this thread that such behaviour would be the exception and not the rule in our country- we do remain a progressive and responsible liberal democracy. As a fairly large IT services provider myself we do not seek to influence procurement policy in any way whatsoever, preferring instead to have our services compete on their own merits.

  • Yes, thanks for that pointer, Gray. I'm familiar with the post on the NZOSS site (which my company happens to host and maintain).

    I'll just say that

    a) before questioning Rob's credibility and getting on a high-horse about inappropriate behaviour, I encourage you to evaluate your own (and that of your fellow Microsofties - because, let's face it - to the outside world you're all just representatives of the same monolith), and

    b) I'd much sooner trust Rob's analysis than that of anyone representing Microsoft.

    Microsoft simply has no track record of trustworthiness.



  • @Chris Auld

    I'm afraid I consider your suggestion of "letting bygones be bygones" quite disingenuous. Given Microsoft's history of "bygone" infractions, I'm sure they'd love to have bygones be forgotten, but reputations don't work that way.

    As I'm sure you know, Chris, in NZ reputation is very important. Reputations are, by definition, built on bygones - bad reputations in particular. Microsoft have created their reputation, no one else. They can only improve it through their positive actions. Sadly for them, the use of spin (read: PR companies) doesn't enhance reputation except in the eyes of the most naive of observers. Trust must be earned, and it often takes a long time. Microsoft have a long hard road ahead of them to earn my trust, and I know I'm not alone.


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