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05.22.08

Groklaw: Microsoft’s ODF Moves Vapourware, Possible Trojan Horse for Software Patents

Posted in Antitrust, Deception, Europe, FSF, Microsoft, Open XML, OpenDocument, Patents, Standard at 10:56 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

“There won’t be anything we won’t say to people to try and convince them that our way is the way to go.”

Bill Gates (Microsoft’s CEO at the time)

Microsoft intervening with the ODF committee up, close and personal? Boy, that’s exciting!

Legal Issues

It took Groklaw a while to respond to the latest announcement from Microsoft, but after some studying, a detailed article was dispatched. The analysis at the start is eerily similar to ours (serving as further validation), but PJ then notes that there are legal traps too. Do take a look because it sounds similar to the RAND+OSP stunt.

Microsoft Supporting ODF? — Close, But No Cigar

[...]

Once again, the problem is software patents. Internet News indicates that commercial Linux/FOSS vendors, and the GPL license that Linux comes with, will be excluded…

[...]

GPL developers can’t obtain patent licenses. That would violate the terms of the GPL. Period.

Like Microsoft doesn’t know that.

But, you say, Linux is GPL’d and that’s Microsoft’s primary competition. Can it be that commercial vendors and the GPL will be exiled again from the “even” playing field everyone else gets to be on? Why yes. It appears so. Commercial Linux vendors need not apply. Or they can sell out.

In short, I think Microsoft has no intention of interoperability with its actual competition, namely commercial Linux, like Red Hat and Ubuntu, et al, all the vendors who refuse to sell out to their patent demands. I’d say it has to be deliberate on Microsoft’s part, because when Microsoft offered its Open Specification Promise (OSP), the promise not to sue over OOXML, sorta, kinda, it was clearly informed by the Software Freedom Law Center that the OSP’s terms are inconsistent with the GPL and that the promise provides no assurance for FOSS developers. And Microsoft is certainly knowledgeable about the problems with RAND terms for FOSS. But they persist in offering what they know commercial GPL developers can’t accept.

[...]

Please note that they too expressed dreams of maintaining ODF, not just OOXML, and making the two “interoperable”. So, now Microsoft says it will join OASIS and “help” ODF and it hopes ODF will go to the same folks who mangled OOXML.

Does that sound helpful?

I wish they were sincere. I’d love to be proven wrong. But I’m afraid, having watched Microsoft shove OOXML through the Fast Track process, despite it not even being usable, that ODF will be harmonized out of meaningful existence. I suspect that is the plan. And so to me, the announcement of “support” for ODF sounds like it could just be the next chess move in Microsoft’s strategy to maintain its heavy footprint.

The fragments and findings above were missing from Glyn Moody’s new analysis, so he was sent a headsup on these overlooked aspects. Here are some of his own reasons for skepticism, as he articulated them in Linux Journal:

As I’ve written elsewhere, I see increasing signs of new Microsoft approach to open source, which involves loving applications to death, while undermining GNU/Linux. The idea might be to lull the wider free software community into a false sense of security while digging away at the foundations, so that one day open sources apps find themselves running mostly on Windows, with Microsoft in the driving seat.

That’s more of a long-term threat, albeit one that the free software world needs to be aware of. So, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Microsoft is sincere, that it really will offer proper ODF support in Office, and that it really wants work with rather than against the OASIS technical committee: why might that be?

Microsoft wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants the regulators off its back while at the same time finding itself able to EE&E ODF. Don’t believe it yet? Then read on.

What the EC May Think

Europe’s regulators took a cautious stance. They formally said only that Microsoft’s announcement had been noted. There was no praise or protest. Looking a little deeper, you find some further analysis such as this good one.

The sudden moves by Redmond point out two hard facts:

1. It’s not nice to fool Mother Europe.
2. If Microsoft says you’ve got five fingers on each hand, many people will insist on an independent count.

In my view the second problem is bigger than the first. Credibility may not mean much in the proprietary universe, where money counts for everything and truth is a commodity.

In the open source world, political values like credibility are real. Microsoft has only just begun to recognize this.

More from Marcich:

Marcich advised caution for now, noting that Microsoft announced its intention two years ago to implement “support” for ODF for via a third-party translator that is still in beta (under development) and will not be completed until the first half of 2009. There was limited functionality available via the converters and they were poorly integrated into the overall Microsoft user interface, as compared with the integration and functionality Microsoft offers for its own OOXML format.

“What governments want is direct, internal support for ODF in Microsoft Office. Governments do not want to waste time waiting for translators to load or re-engineering default-save functions for their workforce,” added Marcich. “If Microsoft actually follows through with this most recent promise, it will reinforce the global market-led demand by customers, particularly governments, seeking open standards based interoperability through ODF.”

Here is the BBC quoting Marino Marcich of the ODF Alliance: “Governments will be looking for actual results, not promises in press releases.”

More of the same here:

Microsoft’s ODF support looks good … but on paper only

Microsoft’s pledge to support ODF as a native file format in Office 2007 SP2 is good news for OpenOffice – but on paper only.
The devil is in the details – and Microsoft hasn’t spelled out precisely how or if its ODF 1.1 implementation will support macros and other challenging aspects of document interoperability. And it will be some time before we find out. Office 2007 SP2 won’t appear until the first half of 2009.

When Microsoft says “first half of 2009,” it does not actually mean this. Remember that when Windows Vista got RTMed, Steve Ballmer promised a release of Windows every two years. Almost 20 months later Ballmer called Windows Vista “work in progress” and there are no signs of a Vista successor coming any time before November 2008. In fact, there are hardly any signs that anything as such even exists. Mary Jo Foley reported a few days ago that Microsoft is oddly mum on this issue.

All Microsoft offered was vapourware. Remember that Longhorn (Vista) was intended to be released in 2003. That’s what Microsoft told us when it showed flashy videos comprising some futuristic mockups (it tries this again at the moment with OLPC, so be warned). It never materialised and came to no no fruition, even 3-4 years late. Almost 7 years later people choose to jump back to 2001 (XP days, when I was a teenager) rather than tolerate the pains of Windows circa 2008.

A couple of days ago, the FSFE’s newsletter covered document formats, among other things.

2. Lack of quality in standardisation a serious problem

“FSFE published its ‘Six questions to national standardisation bodies’
before the September 2nd vote last year. [1] Considering the statements
about progress made on MS-OOXML, one would have hoped that at least one
of these questions enjoyed a satisfactory response,” states FSFE’s
German Deputy country coordinator Matthias Kirschner. He continues:
“Unfortunately that is not the case. Issues like the ‘Converter Hoax’ [2]
and the ‘Questions on Open Formats’ [3] are still equally valid. As the
‘Deprecated before use’ [4] and ‘Interoperability woes with OOXML’ [5]
documents demonstrate, MS-OOXML interoperability is severely limited in
comparison to Open Standards. In addition to these issues, there are the
legal concerns that were raised by various parties. [6]”

FSFE vice-president Jonas Öberg states: “Governments have to start
asking themselves what the ISO seal of approval really means. As
demonstrated by the MPEG standards, it never meant that something
qualifies as a meaningful ‘Open Standard.’”

The BBC also quoted Georg Greve from the FSFE regarding the very latest developments (unaccounted for in the message above): “Support for ODF indicates there are problems with OpenXML that Microsoft cannot resolve easily and quickly.”

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13 Comments

  1. Woods said,

    May 22, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    Gravatar

    Bwahaha! I’d like to see what sort of a spin OOXML/MS-apologists will be putting on Groklaw’s commentary (unless they stick to plain discrediting)…

    But I have to agree with PJ, I’d love nothing better than to be proven wrong (and as often has been noted here, Microsoft’s past actions simply don’t inspire confidence in that, alas…)

  2. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 23, 2008 at 12:11 am

    Gravatar

    I’m sure Microsoft is just doing the Right Thing™ by fighting all those ‘pirates’.

    “There’s free software [gratis, dumpware] and then there’s open source… there is this thing called the GPL, which we disagree with.”

    Bill Gates, April 2008

    The EU regulators hopefully still read Groklaw, despite all the SCO and Microsoft AstroTurfers (already busted) that try to poison the Web site.

  3. Alex H. said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:07 am

    Gravatar

    There’s no need to put a spin on Groklaw’s commentary; it’s just an opinion.

    If there was a problem with using the GPL to implement OOXML, OpenOffice.org and Abiword to name but two wouldn’t be able to implement it. The fact is, they are (you can argue about the finer points of how close to the standard they’re following, but that’s beside the point).

    Groklaw can have whatever opinion it wants. Free software developers who write the software seem to have a different opinion.

  4. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:14 am

    Gravatar

    Groklaw can have whatever opinion it wants.

    Did you follow the links to see PJ’s evidence?

    Free software developers who write the software seem to have a different opinion.

    Can you speak on behalf of them all? Do you know why KDE developers don’t touch OOXML for example? I happen to know the answer.

    You’re becoming predictable. I knew It would be interesting to see what fluff Microsoft and its apologists can come up with to counter PJ.

  5. Alex H. said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:36 am

    Gravatar

    Yes, I did follow the links. But I don’t see what difference it makes – it’s theory vs. practice.

    I’m not saying _all_ free software developers are happy to implement OOXML. I’m certainly not speaking for KOffice; although in the interviews I’ve read there are other factors such as lack of developers which are also stated.

    What I am saying is that the “you can’t write GPL’d code to read/write OOXML” seems to be wrong. In particular, Sun’s lawyers will have been all over that.

    I’m not interested in countering PJ. But this “GPL is locked out” meme is just obviously wrong. The real evidence is the code being written and released as free software under a GNU GPL.

  6. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:45 am

    Gravatar

    What differentiates between the case of OOXML (OSP confirmed a problem by SFLC lawyers) and this case of ODF, assuming Microsoft can have its way? There’s already the problem of XML patents held by patent trolls (Microsoft is buddies with a few). This issue was raised to warn ISO a long, long time ago.

  7. Alex H. said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:52 am

    Gravatar

    Hm, I’m not totally sure what you’re asking.

    The SFLC did say that the patent agreement wasn’t as good as the one in use with ODF, and that’s pretty obvious, but do note that it did say you could write a GPL’d implementation to read/write OOXML.

    There were a couple of problems the SFLC raised. I don’t know if anyone is arguing against their position – certainly I’m not – but note that they specifically didn’t state that using the GPL was incompatible with the provisions of the OSP.

    Their issue regarding the GPL was that downstream recipients wouldn’t be able to re-use code in a non-OOXML context and still benefit from the patent provision.

    That’s a fair criticism to be sure, but it doesn’t prevent people from implementing OOXML.

  8. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:59 am

    Gravatar

    Well, true, but implementation and distribution are not the same thing

    I could drive very fast, I might not even get caught by a cop, but it neither makes it legal nor safe.

  9. Alex H. said,

    May 23, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Gravatar

    But the issue they raise isn’t implementation, distribution or use. You can use, modify and share a free software app which does that and you’re fine.

    Let me describe a scenario where this problem would come up. If you took the code which read/wrote OOXML, and modified it to work on a different format, you would no longer benefit from the patent promise.

    That’s an important problem, and I totally agree that it’s an issue, but it doesn’t stop free software applications from reading/writing OOXML.

    I think in practice it’s also not a huge issue: the number of patents in place isn’t actually going to be huge. If you look at the approach OpenOffice.org are taking, the OOXML format will be handled by a lot of the same code as the .doc format (at least for Word documents) – a lot of the structures are the same, they’re just expressed differently, so they can be loaded by the same code. That makes them very robust to patent issues.

  10. Saul Goode said,

    May 23, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Gravatar

    Let me describe a scenario where this problem would come up. If you took the code which read/wrote OOXML, and modified it to work on a different format, you would no longer benefit from the patent promise.

    That’s an important problem, and I totally agree that it’s an issue, but it doesn’t stop free software applications from reading/writing OOXML.

    Assuming the scenario of your first paragraph, it would indeed imply that an application that read/writes OOXML would be prevented from being free software. When the code of the application can not be derived from, even for a different purpose, it is no longer free software.

  11. AlexH said,

    May 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Gravatar

    @Saul: No, that’s not really the case – at worst, it becomes patent-encumbered, but still free software. While it’s a problem, it’s not a freedom issue for code reading/writing OOXML, and in reality any code used for such a task is going to be pretty deeply disinteresting for any other task by its very nature.

    Look at this from the other angle. OpenOffice.org is implementing OOXML import filters (viz. the recent news from Sun on their completion ratios for 3.0). OOo is under the LGPL, which is the same as the GPL for the purposes of this discussion (the patent clauses are identical in the v3 licenses).

    Are we seriously saying that OOo 3.0 will no longer be free software because it can import OOXML?

    That’s the logical argument, if you believe GPL’d software is locked out.

  12. Saul Goode said,

    May 24, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Gravatar

    @Saul: No, that’s not really the case – at worst, it becomes patent-encumbered, but still free software.

    I don’t make a distinction in my definition of “free software” as to the mechanism that is employed to restrict its usage. Whether by trade secret, copyright licensing, or patents, if the mechanism restricts the utilization with regard to the freedom of the software, as espoused in both the GPL and the OSI Open Source Definition, then I shouldn’t consider it to be “free software”.

    I won’t go so far as to claim that an OOXML-capable application would not be Free Software; but that is because I personally don’t recognize software patents as being legitimate. But IF the presumption is that software patents are legitimate — a premise inherent if MS’s patent promise is considered to provide any sort of indemnity — then an OOXML-capable application (that relies upon applicable patented technology, of course) indeed would not be Free Software since it restricts the field of endeavor.

    The way I see it, Microsoft’s patent promise provides no indemnity for free software — either the software becomes non-free, or the patent promise isn’t valid (in which case the software is free, but not owing to any patent promise).

  13. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 24, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Gravatar

    Are we seriously saying that OOo 3.0 will no longer be free software because it can import OOXML?

    The point worth making here is that Microsoft’s latest endeavors have a goal. That goal is to exclude the GPL from “open source”. Yes, the GPL, “which we [Microsoft] disagree with,” said Bill Gates in April this year. Gates characterises “free software” very clearly as the dumping Microsoft does to get people “sort of addicted” (again, Gates’ own words) until they can figure up how to exploit this for profit “some time in the next decade.”

    Why do you think we protest so vigorously against swpatents?

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