Background information on ODF, OOXML and why It matters

In the beginning there was MS Office:

Or at least there has been for a substantial amount of time now. Office has for a long time been the standard office suite almost everywhere, a fact that has made Microsoft a fairly massive amount of money. To ensure that they kept making money off Office, they adopted an unfortunately common practise known as vendor lock-in.

What that means is that the information you type into a .doc file is only available to you if you have a copy of MS Office around that opens it. No one else is given the information on how to open those files. Hence,

  • Once you have created a bunch of .doc files, you are restricted to using Word to open them.
  • If someone else sends you information in a .doc file, you need word to be able to read/edit that information.
  • New versions of Office make subtle changes to how they save those .doc files so you are forced to upgrade if you want to read a file coming from someone with a newer version.
  • This is regardless of whether or not you actually need any feature the new version offers.

The overall effect is to ensure that users are locked into a specific vendor’s tools and can’t switch to another vendor’s tools, which may be better or cheaper, without losing all of the information they currently have stored under the file format of the old tool. Even worse, in order to share documents, they will continuously be paying for the latest version of the tool.

Now of course, once the maker of said tool controls a large enough chunk of the market, they have an assured revenue stream from simply releasing new versions of their software, and the consumer is screwed by the masses of old documents they have and their need to communicate with everyone else who uses this same tool and can’t abandon it either.

Enter Sun Staroffice/Openoffice.org and ODF:

In the late 90’s, Sun Microsystems bought an office suite called Staroffice. They decided to make the source code of Staroffice open and in doing so created Openoffice.org, a free, cross-platform office suite.

Somewhere along the line it occurred to someone that there did not exist an open file format and the creation of an international standard for document types would pry the market open and allow several competitors to sell their office suites based solely on individual merit in place of vendor lock-in.

Openoffice’s file format thus became the basis for an International Standards Organization(ISO) approved file format known as Open Document Format (ODF) which is currently controlled by an independent body called OASIS. Oasis is an international standards body that controls several different standardized file formats. Microsoft is listed as a member on their website though I was told by one of their employees that they recently left the group.

ODF is an open standard that is supported in a number of different programs covering all major platforms. Anyone else who wants to implement it has access not only to the original specification but also to the source code of several of its current implementations. Its also a standard under rapid development to add in features that people feel are necessary in a document format. As a result of this there is a substantially reduced risk of vendor lock-in with ODF. Your documents will travel with you between office suites which support ODF. And any Office suite can add support since it is an open standard.

At this very moment, is supported by Openoffice.org, Staroffice(free with Google pack), Koffice, Neooffice, Abiword, Gnumeric, Google Docs and Zoho Office among others. Therefore a document written on any of these programs can be read, written and edited on any other of these programs.

A number of government agencies and businesses started to realize that switching to ODF would free them from vendor lock-in. A couple of them started to do just that and a lot of others are seriously looking at only recognizing open standards in the creation and processing of official documents.
OOXML joins the party:

Obviously the loss of several billion dollars of revenue maintained by an inability of their customers to open their documents anywhere else was not something microsoft was particularly in a hurry to see skip away. Hence, they took the document format of Office 2007 and submitted it to an international standards body called ECMA as Office Open XML(OOXML). All similarities in name to Openoffice.org are a mistake I’m sure *cough*. At the moment, the only full implementation of OOXML I know of is Office 2007. There are partial implementations out there, but nothing that is close to the level of Office’s support.

Now, the initial ODF specification was 700 pages long. It took 3 years to get full OASIS approval and another year after that to get ISO approval. OOXML’s specification is a bit over 6000 pages. It passed ECMA in just about a year and is trying to get fast-tracked through the ISO, reducing the amount of time member countries have to examine the entire thing and come up with objections.

Even with the limited time though, a lot of objections have been raised by people, companies and countries about part of the specification being vaguely written and depending on technology that Microsoft owns patents on and has not waived its right to sue over. The fear is that turning OOXML into an open standard will merely be a trojan horse to allow them their continued stranglehold on the market by means of an ‘open’ format which only they can fully impliment.

In response they have apparently been sending PR teams around to national Standards boards all over the world(Ghana for a fact) to lobby for votes for OOXML under the guise of talking about ‘Open XML Standards’. On the other side there has been an effort spearheaded by IBM to make those same boards, some of which do not necessarily have the expertise to review 6000 pages of dense XML specifications in a month, aware of the existence of ODF and the technical objections that have been raised to OOXML.

Why this matters in Ghana and the developing world:

I keep getting asked this question a lot recently, so I’ll take a stab at ignoring the myopia it implies and answer it as best I can.

Developing countries are still building the vast majority of their IT infrastructure. This means that they do not have a massive base of old documents in a restricted format. Those documents are on paper. Their offices are still being computerized. Their people are still learning how to use those computers. If you are going to teach someone to use an office suite anyway, what difference does it make if that suite is MS Office, Openoffice.org or Google Writer? What difference does it make if those legacy paper documents go to ODF or OOXML? Either way the work has to be done and the money has to be spent.

The problem is, what happens when you lock yourself into a company’s proprietary format because they are giving you free stuff and claim the format is open, then they start charging you for it and you realize all those alternatives they assured you existed can’t fully open your documents and you are stuck with them and their licence fees?

MS is spending a lot of money in Africa and giving a lot of stuff away for free. That altruism won’t last. It can’t, its too expensive. If OOXML is truly open(and what I’m seeing has me doubtful of that) then it doesn’t matter. When they start charging we can just evaluate our options and go in the direction that makes the most sense for us. If it doesn’t, we’ve spent a lot of money to build a foundation that renders us slaves to one company’s whims, and unlike richer parts of the world, we can’t come up with the money to change directions.

If OOXML is inappropriately tied to Microsoft tools and software, it doesn’t fit the definition of an open standard and making it one is inviting trouble we don’t want and probably can’t recover from quickly.

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And they thought I was exaggerating

Whenever I have to argue the virtues of Linux and Open Source Software, I always end up pointing out that the standard practice these days of simply pirating Windows and all the applications people need along with it has a limited shelf life especially for bigger firms and government institutions. Sooner or later the copyright holders for the pirated software will show up and demand the money they are owed. Maybe not from the average man on the street, but definitely from government institutions and corporations making enough money to be targets.

People always assume I am joking. They all seem to feel that Africa is too small a market for anyone to really care.

Well, go talk to these guys.

Granted, India is a much bigger market than we are, but sooner or later the time will come for us too. And that is more than enough reason to start considering the alternatives now.


I might have overreacted just a bit

An update on the whole Windows – OLPC business courtesy of planet OLPC

So its not quite that bad. Microsoft is working on their own with no real assistance from the OLPC people. That I can sort of live with. I am still bothered by their part in this entire process though.


Quick Question

Who would be the best person to talk to about getting my hands on some repository DVDs of Ubuntu Feisty? I think I may have been emailing the wrong people. Either that or they assumed it was some special form of the generic wealthy Nigerian businessman email. Although why they would be asking for free software repositories in place of account numbers and money would be weird.

No, I can’t download them. Our bandwidth is not that large. It would probably take me at least a month or two to get that done. And I have people in at least three other institutions in Ghana and Togo waiting for me to get a repository they can copy and host.

Any ideas?


Good news and bad news

The Good: Dell starts selling computers with Ubuntu installed  – You might actually get me to buy a Dell now. Maybe. I spent a few too many years repairing them to trust their build quality.

The Bad: The OLPC will cost $175 and run WindowsXP – *blinks, at a loss for words*

Am I the only person to who this sounds a bit backwards?

Oh, and as a bonus, a great critique of Microsoft’s new $3 Windows scam program


Another busy week

This week, the job is hosting a Media-FOSS workshop which is offering tutorials to interested media people from all over Africa in open source software that can be useful in their activities. There’s also a localization conference happening at the same time and potentially an open forum on FOSS and its relevance to Africa on Friday. I may be speaking at that one, a concept that is a bit unnerving.

Setting up for that has kept me busy for the last couple of days and will probably keep me running around until it ends on friday, at which time I will most likely need a beer badly.

For those of you who are curious, they are covering tools that include

I think thats it. If there’s anything else its skipping me right now.

Here’s a link to the inaugural speech by Ghana’s minister of communications.

For the most part I approve of this conference if for no other reason than it gets the idea of Linux and Open Source Software further into the public consciousness, especially seeing how much WIntel tends to own the IT mindshare in this country. I’ll blog more about my impressions as the event goes on. I might even put up the slides to my Friday talk if they don’t look too embarrassingly horrible


In which I talk about the OLPC project again

This post is actually supposed to be further down on my list of things to blog about, but then Greg’s blog pointed me at this critique by Jorge Aranda and I figured this might be a good time to talk about it.

Jorge makes a couple of great points about perceived shortcomings in the project which the OLPC developers seem to not be paying enough attention to. I’m going to piggyback off the ones I agree with to make a few observations as another science and technology geek who grew up in a developing country and currently works for a government agency there.

Now, first the standard disclaimer. I don’t dislike the OLPC project. I think its a valiant effort which involves some brilliant hardware and software hacking. I also think the idea of disruptive learning they are pushing has a lot of potential. I will be paying close attention to the rollout process and expect that some very valuable ideas will come out of its implementation. And I wish them the best. Hell, I even want one just because.

From my perspective though, it seems to me that the project has been making the mistake of focusing extensively on the process of building the device and creating the software it needs, but not enough on implementation issues that might show up after they deploy.

I also feel that they are running too quickly to the mass rollout phase of the project. I would have preferred a longer testing period to get a sense for what works with the kids in differing environments. I also wonder how many countries can afford space in their education budget for a million of them.

Back to Jorge’s critiques….

Its not a gift, its a textbook
Any one of those laptops is supposed to replace textbooks in mathematics, science, a bunch of languages(which will differ depending on which country and where in it we are talking about), history(specifics will also depend on country), geography etc…

I have to wonder to what degree they are working on the problem of free educational content localized for the countries that will get the laptops. The laptops won’t just be inspiring future computer scientists. They’ll also be inspiring the creation of new mathematicians, physicists, chemists,writers, historians, musicians………

Where is their content? To what degree is the project working either on its own or with other relevant projects to get the kids access to all this information. And localized too. If we have free books for instance, I want African kids to read African, Carribean, Asian, South American writers etc. with their Shakespeare. How possible is that? How much effort is going into this?

It will garner enemies:
Ghana is a fairly conservative country controlled by people who are scared of, among other things, losing their kids to foreign cultures. Machines they don’t understand which give kids their own network would definitely create issues. Localized content might help with that problem but general conservatism and resistance to change will create issues.

I can also foresee issues with teachers unions about kids getting these machines unless they are also given some kind of computer training and access to machines of their own, which will impose its own financial burden on educational systems that are broke to begin with.

The black market:
People seem to keep assuming that (a) only kids will want this and (b) there will never be need to steal one. If its as powerful as I keep hearing, people will still them regardless of how colorful you make them or how tiny you make them. And they’d probably get stolen anyway simply because they are worth a hundred dollars. Personally I can think of lots of things a tiny linux powered PC capable of mesh networking would be good for. And not all of them are legal.

The cost:
Any country that buys into the project is agreeing to devote at least $100 million to it. In Ghana our teachers recently went on strike because they are underpaid. Even in the capital city there are public schools which are woefully underfunded and can barely afford pencils. In the poorer regions it can be depressing. If we are short of funding to make basic facilities available to everyone, is going all the way to laptops not a bit of a stretch? I know its a question that leaves open room for all sorts of idiotic assumptions about Africa and the developing world, but its still valid. We are short of money for education. Partly because we are just broke and partly because IMO we have bad priorities. Either way it needs to be addressed.

Another thing. Why did the OLPC people ignore the adult market? I mean, I know Quanta is making its own play for that market using the same technologies and maybe that was always the plan, but computers are expensive and Ghana alone has tens of thousands of college students who would kill for a $300 – $400 laptop to work with. Plus for linux vendors, this is an easy way into a huge untapped market of smart kids in the developing world who may not yet have been locked in to any one way of doing things.

Anyway, the point here is simply that I would love to see the OLPC people address issues beyond the hardware and software they will be using. Now I’ve heard some of this stuff mentioned before. Not enough for my liking though. This really does come across as something with too narrow a focus.