Breaking free of the politics

It's good to see the latest news out of Malaysia, where they have decided to take a step back from the previous rush towards mandating ODF. It was clear that many of the anti-OpenXML folks out there were pushing too hard on the process and were actually "attempting to short-circuit the normal consensus process for adopting a document standard."

I understand that it's easy for people to get emotional on this topic, and some folks out there have unfortunately done an effective job of polarizing the debate. They want to frame it into a black vs. white issue where you have to choose sides. Sam Hiser of the Open Document Foundation often refers to his group as the noble rebellion who are fighting against the evil empire (he actually declared war on me last month). This type of approach doesn't help anyone though, especially when you're trying to work through the technical issues and actually build something. Here is some more information from the article on this issue:

But the ODF supporters chose to ignore the dissenting voices in committee, as well as objections raised in the public responses, to push through approval of ODF by a two-thirds majority, Ariffin said.

This is a process not provided for by ISO guidelines, he said.

He believes that these parties within TC/G/4 had become proxies of international bodies with a business interest in promoting ODF and shutting any competing document format out of the Malaysian market.

The OpenXML format would have been affected had the ODF supporters been successful in their bid.

I'm really glad to see this move, and I'm hoping we'll get back to discussing the technical facts. Doug Mahugh has a great post talking about this particular story, and some of the exaggerations you're seeing from the anti-OpenXML crowd.

Last week, I actually got a chance to meet with Dinesh and Yusseri who both write on the Open Malaysia blog and we had a great conversation. It's always rewarding to me personally when I'm able to sit down with folks on either side of the debate and talk about the technical facts rather than all the politics. We talked about the history of both Open XML and ODF first, which I think really helped to frame the discussion. Prior to that, they had been under the impression that ODF was already a ratified standard before we started working on Open XML, and they didn't understand why we created something new. After understanding the history though, it was clear why we have both standards, and how they were actually developed in parallel (one in Microsoft Office and the other in Sun's StarOffice). Another issue I think that many folks weren't aware of was how little participation there was in the ODF standardization process leading up to version 1.0 (only two people attended more than 75% of the meetings). It wasn't until after that that you saw the participation really pick up (and all the marketing/promotional groups formed). We also discussed the reason why the Open XML spec was so large. There is a ton of functionality there, and it's important to fully document it (for example, there are 300 pages just for spreadsheet functions). Even if something isn't used frequently by our customers, it's still important to include it in the spec. Remember that we have over 400 million customers, and the 80/20 rule doesn't really apply (20% is 80 million people).

Dinesh and Yusseri seemed like really sharp guys, and it was a great conversation. We didn't have a lot of time to talk, which was unfortunate, but in the small amount of time we had I think we covered a lot. I hope that we'll get more chances in the future to sit down and continue the technical discussions, which are far more important than the political ones.