The ‘Open XML formats’ seminar

I guess I should go into how I ended up talking about XML document formats and openness. On Monday the 13th I got into work(well, technically my contract is over and I’m finishing up some things I felt bad about leaving unfinished) and was called in by my (ex) boss who told me that she had received an invitation from the Ghana Standards board on the previous Friday to a seminar they were holding with Microsoft for all IT stakeholders in the country on ‘Open XML formats. This was of course basically an attempt to lobby our standards board to vote for ISO certification on OOXML. The fact that they started out trying to misname what they were doing didn’t make me particularly at ease.

By the time I was briefed, the job had already sent a letter back to the Standards board outlining the fact that there were issues other countries were raising about OOXML and pointing out that a discussion on open XML formats would be better served if Microsoft wasn’t the only group making presentations. Since they were more diplomatic than I have a tendency to be, they did not also mention the perception of conflict of interest the Board was inviting by co-hosting the seminar. I was told to read up as much as I could for the seminar, which was to be the next day.

Tuesday. I showed up a little late to the seminar, which was being held at the African Regency hotel. It was attended by

  • softTRIBE (a local software company)
  • AITI-KACE (the job)
  • Ministry of Communications
  • Ghana ICT Directorate (Their chairman headed the seminar)
  • The University of Ghana
  • Atlantic Computers (Mostly a vendor)
  • K-NET (ISP)
  • IPMC (IT school and vendor)
  • 3 Microsoft representatives, Atilla, Chineye  and Andreas Eberht (Microsoft Regional Technology Officer for the EU

From the beginning it was obvious that the Standards Board had become aware of the possibility of appearing dodgy and so clarified its position in a speech read by its representative that they were not there to take sides but instead to listen to the stakeholders (the above companies + others who didn’t show up) and carry their vote to the ISO. This was followed by a speech from the GICTED boss talking about the objectives of his outfit. Then we got to the actual talks.

    The three representatives went one at a time, Chineye first, then Atilla, then Andre. Chineye gave a fairly uninteresting talk about the benefits of OOXML to Ghana that managed to say almost nothing about OOXML but try to flatter us. The CEO of SoftTribe spoke briefly about the financial reasons for supporting OOXML and actually unwittingly made a great point. Atilla talked a bit more about OOXML, mostly using all the arguments that led to the creation of ODF in the first place, but pretending those arguments were from Microsoft side. The amusement it gave me listening to him explain about the evils of closed formats was worth the entire day.

    Andre was the real big gun though. Apparently he makes a living lobbying the EU for MS, so he’s very good at framing the argument to suit his company. Purely from a sophistry point of view, he was impressive. His presentation was split into several parts, most of which attempted to again make arguments that work just as well for ODF, but with more skill and finesse. There was nothing in there you won’t find by looking at the microsoft blogs on OOXML. Well, there was also a section on the advantages of XML based formats that separates content from formatting. Obviously he didn’t mention that this applies not only to OOXML, but to any kind of XML based document type, and also to LaTeX. Then we got lunch before the Q&A session.

    sidenote: setting all the talks before a big lunch and then getting back a bunch of satisfied,semi-sleepy people to ask questions to was a beautiful stroke, or maybe I’m just cynical.

    So, the Q&A section rolls around, I asked some questions and an attempt was made by the MS reps to paint me as ill-informed and obtaining all my information from blogs on the internet run by anti-Microsoft fundamentalists. Oh, and of course IBM was mentioned as the prime company lobbying everyone and providing them with groundless reasons to vote against OOXML. Then came the best tactic of the day. Dismissing my questions as ‘too academic’ and ‘concerned with the needs of other nations, not Ghana’. After I stopped being annoyed at the attempt to shut me down, I was highly amused.

    Anyway, at the end of the thing no real conclusions were reached as most of the people there had not read the specification, so another meeting was scheduled for Monday the 27th. That will be my next post.

    Observations:

    • A lot of IT stakeholders in Ghana are very connected to Microsoft it seems. I suspect I know why, but that is also a topic requiring its own post. It does taint the process though
    • After the seminar there was a storm of calls and emails to the Standards Board from IBM and a bunch of other sources. I didn’t have anything to do with that did I?
    • Microsoft’s people are slick , Especially Andreas, then again I get the feeling that defending Microsoft in the EU takes a substantial amount of sophistry. And that I can honestly respect.
    • To be fair to the standards board, they have made every effort to be neutral and keep the discussion purely on the merits of the proposal at hand. The problems with the process aren’t their faults really, the nature of our IT industry makes it easy to subvert

    More on this later

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    7 Comments on “The ‘Open XML formats’ seminar”

    1. Yoon Kit says:

      And how did the meeting on the 27th go?

      yk.

    2. ctrambler says:

      Its sad that the MS people resort to name calling, unless they have evidence that you are indeed a IBM troll.

      Even if you were, calling names like this never helps the conversation. If I were you, I am likely to challenge the rep’s on what account he thinks I am just parroting information from the web. That’s a personal attack and I will not be intimidated by it, even though I am a Chinese and we are culturally predisposed to avoid confrontation.

      If a point is valid and a lot of people feels it is important, it will get raised again and again. Rather than finding a good reason to counter these points, resorting to name calling is usually a sign of desperatism.

      I am assuming you are a Ghanaian, if so, there is no foundation in saying your comment is not the concern of Ghana.

    3. […] what would Microsoft do? They don’t seem to be following the path which would lead to interoperability […]

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    4. […] The ‘Open XML formats’ seminar (Ramblings of an African Geek), Slashdot articles, Wikipedia OOXML […]

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