Free, Open Software Supporters Advocate Against Microsoft Document Standard

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By Kaitlin Mara
Free software and open standards proponents met this week in Geneva to discuss the importance of standards-setting and to debate the role of patent protections and advocate freedom of information sharing in the digital economy.

Organised by open source software advocacy group OpenForum Europe and happening against the backdrop of Microsoft’s bid to have its document format Office Open XML (OOXML) made an international standard at the International Standards Organization (IPW, Access to Knowledge, 27 February 2008), the event advocated a digital future in which fundamental operating principles for the development of technical standards include certain guaranteed freedoms and raised questions as to whether Microsoft’s new document standard would adhere to those goals.

Where standards can run into trouble, Thomas Vinje of the European Committee for Interoperable Systems told the event, is when patents are needed in order to implement them, allowing patent holders to set high prices or to exclude certain users from a needed technology.

Vint Cerf, the Google vice president sometimes referred to as a “father of the Internet,” and the OpenForum Europe’s keynote speaker, said that “freedom from intellectual property restrictions [on new innovation], availability of open source versions, demonstrable interoperability of independently produced [versions], and freedom to participate in further standards evolution” were essential to the creation of true open standards.

Håkon Wium Lie, the chief technology officer of Opera Software – which makes a free web browser – and former employee of Geneva laboratory CERN and the World Wide Web Consortium, stressed the importance of standards by showing snapshots of webpages that “don’t look right” in some web browsers. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer often reads webpages differently than the standards used by other browsers, which means web designers have to make two versions of a page, he said.

The freedom to switch between different information technology programs and have the data remain readable is particularly important for developing countries, Nnenna Nwakanma of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) told Intellectual Property Watch. She said she was currently involved in a study to show that governments in Africa were spending amounts similar to European governments on software licenses, despite having much smaller budgets, and added that the ready availability of open source solutions that could be localised to fit in different parts of the diverse continent was “a survival issue for Africa.”

Fidelity with past versions is also important, said attorney and historian Andy Updegrove, who publishes the blog ConsortiumInfo.org, “if we want the present to exist in the future.” Fidelity with past versions has been raised by OOXML proponents as one way the system differs from the existing Open Document Format (ODF) with which it might compete.

Many of the OpenForum’s participants said that the nature of software development made patents irrelevant not only for standards but also for software in general. Vinje said that “patents come from an entirely different era” and that the current scope of technology is so broad that it is difficult to make a regime relevant in all contexts. Further, he said that the patent system could not be relied on to weed out all invalid patents with so many in play. For example, Intel’s core processor has 10,000 different patents covering it.

Jeremy Allison, co-creator of the open source/free software suite Samba, said that software patents are “a blight” on the industry and said that their original intent – to stop people hiding trade secrets and to provide incentives for people to share their knowledge – is no longer relevant. Programmers do not read patents to learn how someone did something, he said, they read them to see how they can get around them.

But not all attendees were in agreement on this point. Jonathan Zuck of the Association for Competitive Technology, which supports the OOXML standard, argued that free software was akin “to the generic drug industry” in that they modify extant software ideas and release them cheaply. There are innovations in free software, he said, but they rarely come out with completely new innovations because the seed money for that kind of research and development is not there, and is unlikely to come as long as patents are disallowed.

Sides Debate Digital Compatibility

But conversation at the OpenForum resolved around one standard in particular, the document standard Office Open XML by Microsoft that has turned a meeting of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), which might normally be a discussion of technical specifications, into a lightening rod for debate on the future of digital communication and compatibility.

Cerf argued that a true standard “requires multiple parties” contributing, involving competition and engendering interoperability, and that OOXML appears to be more like publication of proprietary specification. He also said he generally supports a recently released European Commission position on standards that he said suggested among other things that intellectual property rights have a “tension” with open standards, and that standards should be technologically neutral.

Attorney Carlo Piana of Tamos, Piana & Partners in Italy questioned whether Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise is fully enforceable and whether the language was too vague to be effective. He also questioned whether the OSP would remain valid as the OOXML standard evolves.

Nick Tsilas of Microsoft disagreed at the event, saying the company had actually gone above and beyond the commitment asked for by the ISO, and that “we are offering whatever intellectual property we have [to do with the standard, and it is] royalty-free, and open source compatible.”

The concern about openness has much to do with government procurement due to the size of the market governments command, said several sources. On the open forum side, the fear is that a widespread OOXML standard that is either not fully royalty free, or is too complicated to work with (IPW, Access to Knowledge, 27 February 2008) would present a problem for competition from smaller companies. Others compared OOXML and its rival Open Document Format to the example of Bluetooth and WiFi, two technical standards that ended up finding different, and both useful, market niches.

Open Standard without Open Process?

Perhaps of greater concern to OpenForum Europe attendees were allegations of misconduct during the ISO approval process. The rules of ISO are really “like gentlemen’s agreements” said Pieter Hintjens of the Digital Standards Organization, “if you’re cynical […] the ISO rules allow room for manipulation.”

The Free Software Foundation accused Microsoft of “stuffing” committees voting in the initial ballot in September 2007 (IPW, Access to Knowledge, 27 February 2008). The most cited example is the company’s alleged “buying” of the Swedish vote which made front page news in the country in September, after 23 new voting members of the Swedish Standards Institute (SIS) arrived at the eleventh hour of a several month process and mostly voted in favour of OOXML.

The SIS ended up invalidating the vote, though on the reason that one of the members had accidentally voted twice (pdf). A Microsoft employee in Sweden admitted that he sent emails “inconsistent with company policy” to two members of the voting committee, but said he immediately realised the error, corrected the mistake and notified SIS, according to Microsoft’s Jason Matusow’s blog.

Hintjens also mentioned that the Digital Standards Organisation released a report (pdf) on 13 January showing a high correlation between low per capita GDP and likelihood of voting “yes” on the ISO OOXML process. “It’s natural to wonder whether its lobbying power has anything to do with the approvals by some less developed countries,” according to the Digital Standards Organisation’s website. The European Union is now scrutinising Microsoft’s behaviour in trying to push its standard, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A Microsoft spokesperson said she would characterise the case in Sweden as “pretty much an isolated incident” and said that Jason Matusow’s blog told the full story. She added that “we strive to comply with laws and regulations” of Europe and internationally but that she did not “have any specifics” about the EU scrutiny. The EU has an ongoing antitrust case on OOXML’s interoperability with competitors, to which the spokesperson said “Microsoft has taken significant steps to open up its intellectual property and make things easier for developers and its something that we feel passionate about.”

Updegrove felt that ultimately “everyone would have been better off” if Microsoft had joined the working group back in 2002 that eventually resulted in the Open Document Format. The Open Document Format Alliance published a brief (pdf) calling for harmonisation of ODF with Microsoft’s OOXML into one unified standard.

Kaitlin Mara may be reached at kmara@ip-watch.ch.

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