GNOME, OOXML, and Half-Truths Colliding in the Night

Tuesday Dec 18th 2007 by Bruce Byfield
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To suggest that the GNOME Foundation become more responsive to the community or that its accusers become more responsible may assume an impossible nobility of spirit all around.

The average user probably hasn't even heard of Open Document Format (ODF) or Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML). But to factions in the free software community, these formats for common office files such as text documents and spreadsheets are the poles on which a violent controversy centers. With both formats candidates for being the ISO standard that becomes the norm for interoperability between office suites, emotions were already running high.

However, in the last six weeks, this issue has been sidetracked by a debate about whether the GNOME Foundation, which oversees development of the popular desktop, has betrayed or assisted the community by being involved with the development of OOXML at all.

The tragedy of this controversy is not just that it is divisive, but that each side has a point. Yet the arguments are based on such utterly different principles that the two sides have almost no chance of finding common ground. In fact, the argument has become so polarized that last week Sam Varghese characterized my suggestion that both sides believed that they were acting for the good of the community as an "insane claim."

Nor do any of the principals seem interested in ending the division. I think one could be found, if both sides could back down a bit, but even to make this suggestion is to take flack from both sides.

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How it started

The history of the conflict is convoluted and full of noise. However, here is a summary, presented as neutrally as possible.

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Developed with considerable input from the free software community, Open Document Format became an ISO/IEC standard in 2006. Microsoft declined to participate in the drafting of the ODF standard, preferring to promote its own OOXML standard instead. Both the opportunism of this move and the incompleteness of the standard, which, contradicting the word "open" in its name, often refers to proprietary structures in Microsoft Office Documents, have been widely criticized. So, too, have Microsoft's lobbying and politicing among national standards committees. OOXML failed to become an ISO standard in the vote in September 2007, and has currently gone back to the EMCA committee for redrafting. In February 2008, the revised standard is scheduled to be voted on again.

This already tense situation is made even tenser by the fact that Miguel de Icaza, the founder of GNOME and currently a Novell employee, described OOXML as a "superb standard" that had been the subject of a propaganda campaign. Given that Novell was the first free software company to sign a cooperative pact with Microsoft and de Icaza himself has been criticized for the development of Microsoft-compatible projects such as Mono and Silverlight, this comment was seen by some as a betrayal of the community. It also seems to have awoken fears that the sentiment was shared by the GNOME Foundation, although de Icaza is not a board member of the Foundation.

These fears were exacerbated in November with the discovery that the GNOME Foundation had agreed to sponsor Jody Goldberg, the lead maintainer on the Gnumeric spreadsheet, so he could continue to sit on the EMCA committee revising OOXML. According to Goldberg, his interest was in learning more about OOXML so that he and other free software developers could support it. However, the fact that Goldberg had worked for Novell as recently as June 2007, coupled with a few of his remarks taken out of their technical context, were enough for many to see a pro-Microsoft conspiracy to promote OOXML at the expense of ODF.

On November 23, GNOME issued a statement that tried to clarify its position. However, the statement was equivocal enough that the debate has continued on mailing lists and web sites ever since.

Continued: Half-truth vs. Half-truth

Half-truth vs. Half-truth

The first step in making sense of this dispute is to realize that neither side has done much to promote its cause. On the one hand, for a large organization that includes corporate members, the GNOME Foundation has shown itself remarkably indifferent or unaware of how its involvement with OOXML would be perceived. Anyone familiar with the free software community should be able to guess how anything that seems to support Microsoft would be received, especially given the reactions to de Icaza's previous enthusiasms for interoperability with Microsoft technologies. Yet the Foundation went ahead without any announcement, nor even any effort to canvass the opinion of GNOME contributors. A first year communications major could craft a better PR strategy -- let alone tell the Foundation that damage control without backing down never works.

On the other hand, the Foundation's accusers discredit themselves with the conspiracy theories shrilly hinted at on sites like Boycott Novell and NoOOXML. Suggesting that a pro-Microsoft conspiracy exists between Novell and GNOME by cherry picking evidence is not only unsound argument, but frequently close to libel as well. While such tactics appeal to the paranoid element in the community, on the whole they can only discredit the position.

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Nor are such accusations likely to encourage the GNOME Foundation to change its actions. While people in authority dislike admitting their mistakes at the best of times, they are even less likely to change their course when being accused of treason and betrayal. Even if a conspiracy could be proved (and by "proved" I mean substantiated by evidence of an exchange of money or favors, and not just the pointing out of suggestive circumstances), it would probably be a sounder tactic not to make any accusations in public.

The truth is, the two sides are not even arguing in the same terms. The GNOME Foundation is considering the problem in technical terms. Whether or not OOXML becomes an official ISO standard, it will still become unofficial standard, simply because Microsoft Office is the main office program used on computers. That being so, why not get a jump on supporting it so that free software isn't left behind? Even if Microsoft doesn't adhere to the ISO standard itself (as seems likely, given past performance), working to get more details into the OOXML standard will still help free software developers to a degree.

By contrast, the Foundation's accusers are talking in political terms. Why, they ask, should GNOME give the appearance of support to the OOXML standard? Microsoft will only use this action as a sign of support. By assisting with the OOXML standard, the Foundation is likely to make it more likely to defeat ODF. No matter how sound supporting OOXML is as a tactic in programming, politically it is a strategic disaster.

The Foundation's accusers are also taking in emotional and ethical terms. In many circles in free software, even the appearance of working with Microsoft is the equivalent of a pact with the devil, and must be savagely denounced as if they are all members of the Spanish Inquisition -- and I'm talking Torquemada here, you understand, and not Cardinal Fang.

Others, such as Richard Stallman, argue that free software ethics demand that community members not use Microsoft formats at all. More than one blogger has suggested that no plans should be made to implement OOXML despite its seeming inevitability one way or the other. Those holding this belief even claim -- erroneously -- that KOffice's developers share it.

The trouble with these opposing perspectives is not that one is entirely right and other entirely wrong. The trouble is that they begin with imperatives that are utterly irreconcilable with those held by the other side. And what that means is that finding common ground between them is next to impossible. Both sides can only express their viewpoints over and over, growing more frustrated by the other side's apparent inability to hear.

Continued: Finding solutions

Finding solutions

Can anything except the lapse of time end this debate? Not easily. But a starting point might be a recognition on both sides that, in the absence of solid evidence, the other is more misguided than evil or paranoid. Those denouncing the GNOME Foundation need to resist the temptation to diagram conspiracy theories, while the GNOME Foundation needs to act in a more open and responsive manner, instead of like a corporate board of directors putting down a stockholder's revolt.

If both sides can relax slightly, then the possibility of a solution can emerge. It seems too much to expect for the GNOME Foundation to stop its involvement with the OOXML standard, but perhaps the two sides together could find ways to temper that involvement.

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For instance, Instead of sponsoring Goldberg's work on the standard directly, perhaps the Foundation could create an organization specifically for that purpose -- one with an innocuous name such as the Committee for the Publication of Open Standards, that would be useless to Microsoft as PR.

Similarly, the Foundation could also become more involved with the continued development of ODF, and promote its refinement in GNOME related applications like AbiWord and Gnumeric.

For their part, those who oppose the Foundation -- not without reason -- need to show their commitment to the greater community, rather than to the gut-level thrill of the attack. The time for opposition is over, and the search for solutions needs to begin. To his credit, Russell Ossendryver of Worldlabel.com, whose blog first brought the issue to the community's attention has already made such an offer, expressing his willingness to sponsor Goldberg's work on the grounds that the support of his company has less publicity value for Microsoft than GNOME's. Were people like Pamela Jones of Groklaw or Alberto Barrionuevo of Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure to take similar steps towards cooperation, the issue might soon be solved.

I know, I know. To suggest that the GNOME Foundation become more responsive to the community or that its accusers become more responsible assumes an impossible nobility of spirit all around. Most likely, it can only result in the trenches on both sides launching missiles my way as I sit in a foxhole in No Man's Land. But you'll excuse me if I stay put anyway. Where I'm sitting may be vulnerable to both sides, but it also feels considerably saner.

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