More thoughts on harmonization

Brian Jones has a post this afternoon on the concept of harmonization of document formats, and in particular harmonization of the Open XML and ODF formats. After reading that post, Rick Jelliffe's ODF Alliance love letter, and Gray Knowlton's list of investments Microsoft has made in document format interoperability, I've been thinking about the concept of harmonization and how it might work in practical terms.

Harmonization is a large and complex topic, as Brian points out:

I've posted before about some pretty big differences in approach (in formulas and spreadsheets performance for example). Rationalizing these is not up to me or Rob Weir (or any specific company). The formats are not sub-sets and super-sets of each other, they are fundamentally different. Any effort for harmonization must begin with some deep thinking about how things like text, tables, styles, graphics and page layout models are different (finding the difference is at the core of the DIN work) and how they can be rationalized when their core design is very different.

Coincidentally (and yes, Slashdotters, it's a coincidence), Rick Jelliffe posted some thoughts on harmonization yesterday:

It is interesting that the ODF Alliance quotes Tim Bray that the world doesn’t need another way to express basic typesetting features. If it is so important, why didn’t ODF just adopt W3C CSS or ISO DSSSL conventions? Why did they adopt the odd automatic styles mechanism which no other standard uses? Now I think the ODF formating conventions are fine, and automatic styles are a good idea. But there is more than one way to make an omlette, and a good solution space is good for users.

This automatic styles issue is a good example of the inevitable tension between standardization and innovation. Reusing existing technologies is a great thing, but sometimes it's worth thinking outside the box and exploring whether there are better ways to get the same job done. So in any discussion of harmonization, all parties need to think carefully about the unique strengths of each format and make sure that innovations aren't lost in the effort to standardize.

Should ODF give up automatic styles and use CSS instead? Should Open XML give up custom XML parts because ODF doesn't have them? Probably not. And there are a huge number of these issues that will need to be identified before a clear roadmap can be defined for how to move forward.

Rick's post offers another thought on harmonization (or "harmonisation" as the Brits and Aussies call it):

My perspective is that harmonisation (which will take multiple forms: modularity, pluralism, base sets, extensions, mappings, round-trippability, feature-matching, convergence of component vocabularies, etc, not just the simplistic common use of a common syntax) will be best achieved by continued user pressure, both on MS and the ODF side, within a forum where neither side can stymie the legitimate needs of other.

The various forms that Rick suggests harmonization could take are an interesting list to ponder. The best approach is something none of us can know without much more research, but I think a key concept here is that any effective harmonization effort is going to need to take place in an open and consensus-based forum where nobody can "stymie the legitimate needs" of another party.

What should that forum be? I have no idea at this point in time. But I do think that it's clear the best hope for harmonization starts with the type of research and analysis that the German standards body DIN is doing. After all, we can't know what needs to be done without knowing all of the relevant facts. And I also think it's clear that harmonization is something that can best be handled by international standards organizations and experienced standards professionals, the sorts of people who have been through similar complex processes many times in the past. And that means the formats involved need to be open standards that aren't controlled by vendors or other narrow interests.

So how do we get there? I think the first step is getting the standards in the best shape possible, and that's what those of us involved in the standards process have been trying to accomplish. In the US, for example, we have a group of people on the INCITS V1 technical committee representing technology companies, big business, small business and government who have studied the Open XML spec, written comments, reviewed other countries' comments, and reviewed proposed dispositions. That same process is underway in dozens of countries, and by the time the process is complete the Open XML specification will probably be the most scrutinized document format specification ever. That's good news for everyone who will be using it, implementing it, analyzing it, or harmonizing with it in the future.