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Tag: Sun

Open Document Formats, Religion & Democracy

Two of the topics in the title are things we normally don’t touch in this blog. However, the tempest over Massachusetts’s OpenDocumentFormat decision is inflaming passions almost as much as religious and political issues do. In fact, I am writing about it because I woke up irritated at how ill-informed and irrelevant so much of the discussion about the state’s decision is. (Not a good way to start a blog entry!) I promised myself not to go on for more than the length of a reasonable blog-entry, so rather than dig into all the weeds, here is a short history lesson to bring out the big picture, and hopefully keep the debate focused on the real issue for Massachusetts’s and others contemplating similar decisions.

When we (in the standards community) debated open document standards 20 years ago, there was a religious and political fervor fueling the arguments of both sides. Our side (the SGML side, which included Tim Bray and Jean Paoli, now the chief XML people at Sun and Microsoft respectively), argued that nobody’s content should be held hostage by being stuck in a vendor’s proprietary format, and that the solution was a standard set of rules for describing whatever kind format was necessary that vendors were free to implement. The other side (the ODA “Office Document Architecture” side) agreed with that, however they thought the solution was for a bunch of vendors to get together and agree on a format that, instead of being proprietary to a single vendor, was proprietary to a self-defined group of vendors. This solution was even worse than the status quo for lots of reasons (lowest common denominator functionality, enhancements by slow international committee, unhealthy cabal-like motivations, …). At the time I thought of ODA as the soviet approach, and the SGML approach as the democratic approach. Fortunately, the SGML approach won, and that set in motion the developments that have given us XML today.

You can tell where I am going with this. But there is one more relevant aspect of this history to mention. One of the main arguments behind ODA was that the SGML approach was just too difficult to implement. They had a point, you have to pay for the freedom of flexibility. Their mistake was thinking there was an alternative that could anticipate all reasonable requirements. It can cost even more when you just can’t implement what you need to.

The situation today is a little different, but the need for organizations to be able to do whatever they want with their own content is exactly the same. The imposition of any single schema/format on all documents in any organization simply won’t work. Anybody who has been involved in helping organizations build IT applications knows that exceptions are the rule, and you can’t legislate them out of existence even in authoritarian corporate environments. A good decision for the state would be to simply require all documents to conform to one of a number of publicly documented and freely available XML Schemas – who cares what software did or did not create the content or did or did not design the schema? Certainly there are some complex details to work out, but there is no mystery.

We have had debates on this topic at our Boston conference last year and in San Francisco in the Spring, where there was more agreement than disagreement between Microsoft (Jean) and Sun (Tim) and the issues raised were refreshingly free from politics. It’s too bad we didn’t record it.

There is plenty of coverage on this topic. We have more comments and pointers, but also see Jon Udell and David Berlind.

Sun & Microsoft on Open Document Formats & XML Strategy

It wasn’t too long ago that all document formats were proprietary, and vendors that sold authoring and publishing software had a really unfair advantage over their customers because it was so difficult and costly for organizations to convert their content from one proprietary system to another. It was the granddaddy of descriptive markup, SGML, that led the way to the infinitely improved situation we have today with seemingly universal support for XML, and tools like XSL, XQuery etc. So, if most major software applications support reading/writing of XML, including the 800 pound gorilla of office documents Microsoft Office, hasn’t the issue of proprietary formats gone away?

If you are in charge of protecting your organizations content/document assets, you better not be thinking your problems are over. If you are involved in sharing content with other organizations or among applications, you already know how difficult it is to share information without loss — if it is that difficult to share, how easy will it be to migrate to future applications?

Our keynote debate in San Francisco next week is all about helping you understand how to best protect and share your content. While there are some differences between the Microsoft and Sun positions represented by Jean Paoli and Tim Bray, I think they agree more than they disagree on the critical issues you need to consider. We’ll be looking at different aspects of the issue including technology, licensing, cost, and complexity vs. flexibility. For some background see Jon Udell’s posts here and here, and the Cover Pages here. Both contain links to additional info.

I almost forgot… What does this have to do with my earlier posts on the future of content management and Longhorn? Well, Office applications, like all content applications, should benefit from an operating system that can manage content elements and attributes that could be described in XML. Would this make document interchange easier? I don’t know, but it might be fun to explore this question in the session.

If you have a specific question you would like us to cover on the panel, send me an email or add a comment to this post and we’ll summarize what happens.
UPDATE: Jon says he is in Jean’s camp on custom schemas and Tim’s on XHTML. At our Boston panel I think all of us agreed – of course neither Tim nor Jean were there. Jon is tagging his posts on the conference with gilbaneSF2005.

We are using the category and (more wordy) tag Gilbane Conference San Francisco 2005 for all our SF conference postings.