LWE Boston, Politics, and more…

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I was described by Tina Gasperson as the “most enthusiastic” booth-being there, and I probably was, at least from her perspective: most of the journalists covering the event continued the decade long deprecation of LInuxWorld as a place where anything actually happens. But I think a lot actually took place this time around, and that’s due mostly to Leon Shiman’s very interesting government day (4 April), where I spoke briefly, toward the end of the long day.

But some background. OpenOffice.org decided–or, more accurately, I drove the idea–to formally attend this year’s Boston LWE because of the importance of the Massachusetts’ consideration of the OpenDocument Format, or ODF. As readers doubtless know, under the leadership of Peter Quinn, Massachusetts set a policy for offices in the public sector, specifically, the Massachusetts Executive Agencies, to use open formats when saving digital files; the ODF was chosen last September and its use became policy, to be effective 1 January 2007. Quinn since resigned his position but the policy remains intact. It’s a remarkable policy, in several ways, not least for the firestorm of controversy it has produced. “Controversy” is probably too strong a term: most Mass. residents are doubtless ignorant of the decision or its consequences.

But not those opposing it. Briefly, Microsoft–the lead objector, naturally–objects on the grounds that the ODF is inadequate (“The OpenDocument format would not meet requirements for backward compatibility, for forward compatibility, or for performance, that millions of Microsoft customers tell us that they require”–Brian Jones) and that a better solution would be to use Microsoft’s own file format, which it is now endeavouring to make an open standard, by submitting it to the European standardization body ECMA, the first in a series of steps that could end with standardization by the international and widely-respected ISO organization. Microsoft’s primary public reason for endorsing its own format is that it would offer its millions of users backward compatibility; the ODF it argues, would not.

However, as Simon Phipps has pointed out, backward compatibility has nothing at all to do with a file format and everything to do with the characteristics of the application. OpenOffice.org, for instance, currently can read old and new versions of Microsoft Office and will doubtless read future versions; in addition to using the ODF, it also reads/writes .doc, .xls, .ppt, etc. Microsoft’s claim is nonsense–and does not at all address the virtues (or lack thereof) of the ODF. It just throws chaff into the air in the hopes of distracting attention from the real issue. But this effort to sway the gullible, the ignorant, to present them with a false spectre of doom, is no less dangerous for all its pathetic quality. People might actually believe that switching to OOo will isolate them from their existing Microsoft Office files. In fact, it won’t–but we have to tell people this.

Hence the importance of attending the Boston LWE. I figured that there would be journalists there and that attention would be focused not only on the government day but on OpenOffice.org, which is hailed by many as the leading implementation of the ODF. (There are a lot; that is one of the signs of a truly open format: that there are many implementations, removing the threat of vendor lock in and creating–finally!–a real market.) We needed to make our presence noted.

On a different tack, the event offered us the opportunity to make the valuable sort of connections that are only possible at such events–among others in the industry, among OOo adherents in Boston (and the surrounding area) and to renew connections already established.

Did these things come about? Was the event a success? Was it worth the money? And these things *are* expensive! Even with LinuxWorld generously giving us boothspace–thanks!–it still came out to be costly, for there was not only my own travel from Toronto to consider, but there was also the production of the banner. Black and white brochures were donated by Crispian Thorne, and Intel and Sun both lent us monitors; Intel also provided three excellent laptops, while LTSP snaked an ethernet cable across the 15 meters separating us and connected a beautiful Sun monitor to their server, proving not only the value of their product but also the flexibility of OOo. It was, after all, being run on a server quite a ways away. My notion: that schools in developing regions, like Oakland California, Toronto, San Francisco, Washinton, DC, London, Paris, and so on, would benefit fantastically from this technology.)

So, would we do it again? I would. I think that the event was worth the effort in money in that there were new contacts that should prove valuable formed, in that OOo demonstrated a presence that was noted (we were very busy all the time), and in that an absence would have been deeply problematical.

Among the new contacts that we would have otherwise missed, I have to count David Byron of Platasoft and Allen Pulsifer, of Open Office Technology. Both Allen and David helped man the booth all the week long and my thanks to them. Platasoft distributes a package of open-source applications called “Multimedia Office,” and among them is OOo. The entire package, David underscored, is open source; support and services is for a fee, as is fairly standard in FOSS industry. The package also has some advantages to the enduser. But the most interesting thing from my perspective is that the package, along with established proprietary applications based on OOo like StarOffice, highlights the fact that FOSS is far from being a geek only thing, unfriendly, unusable, incomplete. I am happy to envision a scenario in which OpenOffice.org (the project) is supported by, among other things, contributions from those who make money off selling packaged & enhanced versions of the application.

And other contacts? Stefan was able to connect with some developers–we’ll see what materializes, and I tried to work with numerous high school students, who were there with their canny teacher. My message: join us and learn how to work not only with great code but in a collaborative environment. (It’s a message I give routinely and tirelessly. In Denmark, last month, I gave a longer and more detailed version of it to developers, and I think it was actually one of my best presentations. I detailed the procedures developers should follow to submit code and generally participate in the project, and I realized, while talking, that it is really not a simple thing at all. If one were to flowchart it–I urge one to do so–the resulting chart would look mazy indeed. We need a clear abcdarium for would-be developers and we really need it soon. The Google Summer of Code is coming up….)

Unfortunately, as I had to be at the booth for much of the morning and early afternoon of the government day, I missed a lot of the lectures. My loss. I arrived shortly before David Wheeler began his presentation–David’s a great presenter and showman, and can present seemingly abstruse things like the battle of the (open) standards with force and lucidity. In his presentation, he compared the problem of lacking standards to the problem facing firemen prior to the introduction of standardized hose and spigot sizes. In a nutshell: for lack of a common standard, houses burned down and lives were lost. It’s a compelling analogy, and in modern times, we can point to the chaos affecting rescue workers in Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina, who found themselves unable to communicate for lack of a common standard.

But why is there the chaos to begin with? Why the multitude of form? The answer is obvious: because there are many ways to achieve a goal and absent a compelling reason, there is no cause to require that everything works together. Company A, company B, will still make enough money, and though the consumer must pay, she will probably not care enough.

But when does a standard become necessary? When compelling? In the case of houses burning down and people dying, and in the case of wandering bands of rescuers lost in the Babel of their proprietary formats, in the case of life or death, there is no question, there must be a standard, whether articulated by government fiat or by industry consensus. There is too much at stake. (Okay, I am fully aware that the too-much-at-stake argument is silly: every day tens of thousands of lives are needlessly lost because the whats-at-stake is obscured by the minutiae of seemingly manageable risk, by the relocation of risk and responsibility to the hapless individual whos “will” is represented as being best expressed through her ability to consume.)

In the case of a file format like the ODF, however, there seem to be no lives at stake and there seems instead only to be a battle among bureaucrats affecting at most one particularly large corporation. But in fact there is a lot at stake and it might include the lives of millions, and what is more, the issue affects not just the living today but future generations. From this long perspective, the issue is deeply, profoundly important.

To clarify the issue, if government files are saved in a proprietary format, then they are held hostage to the market. The company that owns that format–and that effectively thus owns the contents–is a creature of the market; it could suffer bankruptcy, it could change its format for something more profitable. There is no guarantee of continuation, for not only is it subject to the caprices of the market, but it is also obligated to satisfy the interests of its shareholders, not its customers, or at least not directly.

Making a proprietary format open is a step in the right direction, and one that Microsoft claims to have taken by submitting the format to its upcoming Office to ECMA. But who will maintain it? Who implement it, if anyone else? And will Microsoft still include binary elements that actually encumber usage of the format? An open standard should be one that can be implemented by any application, not one that allows all to work better with Microsoft. Openness is in its best form an egalitarian strategy, not a way of sedimenting power.

Microsoft is committed to preserving its power and market: that is obvious. FOSS (and now the move toward open standards) seeks to open markets, so that local companies, developers, innnovators can compete, collaborate, create, and do so in a way that is responsible to the future. We’ve had enough of Microsoft, let’s do it right this time.