5 Questions with Sun Microsystems' Simon Phipps
Simon Phipps is chief open source officer for Sun Microsystems Inc. As such,
he stands at the center of a heated debate over standards-based XML file formats
like the OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML).
With OOXML approaching a crucial late-February review by the International Organization
for Standardization (ISO), Phipps has been busy. Really busy.
We talked with Simon and got his thoughts on the OOXML tussle as well Sun's
efforts in the open source community.
Redmond Developer News: No doubt you noticed the Burton
Group report that casts the OOXML specification in a rather positive light
for enterprise-scale organizations. Do you believe that the authors are missing
Phipps: Yes, I believe they are. As a number of people and organizations
like the ODF Alliance have already pointed out, the Burton Group report ignored
many facts regarding ODF and downplays common criticisms regarding OOXML. [The
report] seems to me to hold ODF to a higher standard than OOXML and to turn
a blind eye to the mechanisms being used in the attempt to have OOXML approved
by ISO via ECMA.
First, the Burton Group report claims that ODF is being controlled by Sun.
But it's not. It is controlled by a standards body called OASIS. Both the OASIS
rules as well as the current ODF TC charter and membership do not allow Sun
to control ODF. Certainly, Sun is a strong contributor to ODF and thus has some
influence, but Sun is not in a position to control ODF in any way.
Second, the report presents ODF as being simplistic. Yes, ODF tries to be as
simple (and thus easy to understand and easy to use) as possible while providing
a very sophisticated and mature feature set sufficient to implement a full office
suite. The creators of ODF do not see a benefit in making a format unnecessarily
complex and incomprehensible. That's why ODF reuses established open standards
and common concepts as much as possible instead of using proprietary technologies
and reinventing the wheel again and again.
Does this simplicity mean a small and limited feature set? No, ODF 1.0 was
already a very feature-rich standard, but the soon-to-be-released version 1.2
will turn ODF into a very mature standard that will cover close to all document-centric
One argument I hear is that OOXML and ODF are simply serializations of
their respective productivity suites (MS Office for OOXML, OpenOffice.org for
ODF). Is that a fair characterization?
No, it is not. As another Sun employee, Erwin Tenhumberg, pointed out
in his blog quoting
a KOffice developer, OOXML's goal is compatibility with one particular application
-- Microsoft Office. Therefore, OOXML is very closely related to and dependent
on the Microsoft Office implementation. In contrast, ODF is based on the OpenOffice.org
XML file format, not the OpenOffice.org implementation.
That's a huge difference because the OpenOffice.org XML file format was designed
with application, vendor and platform independence in mind. That is one reason
why the OpenOffice.org XML file format reused many W3C standards. In addition,
the specification process of the OpenOffice.org XML format has been transparent
and public since the foundation of the OpenOffice.org project in 2000. Very
early on, other people and organizations were able to help shape the format
which was later chosen as the basis for the ODF efforts at OASIS.
From our readers' standpoint, XML is XML. Why should they care if OOXML
achieves ISO certification? Won't it just mean that they now have two, distinct
ISO-approved, open standards-based XML specifications to choose from?
Well, don't be deceived by the fact "XML" is in the name of
one of the specifications. ASCII is ASCII, but ASCII text written in English
isn't the same choice as ASCII text written in Swahili! Choice between different
implementations of a standard is good for users and consumers; choice between
standards typically is a nightmare.
Two standards for the same domain means format conversion, and format conversion
means potential data loss and extra costs. The more development resources different
vendors have to put on the implementation of conversion tools and file format
filters, the less resources will be available for true innovation.
There's been plenty of allegations around Microsoft's efforts to sway
the ISO vote, including the confirmed case of a Microsoft office in Sweden promising
marketing help for companies that get on board. Has the ISO process been manipulated
or compromised by OOXML proponents and what has been your role in countering
any such activities?
According to the press, many countries in addition to Sweden have seen
similar outcomes, such as a very fast rise in membership numbers. It is hard
to make firm statements about how membership and voting numbers were affected
by any kind of manipulations, but the whole experience has shown clearly that
the process needs to be transparent.
In many countries it was impossible for interested parties to follow the discussions
on a national standards body level unless they became members. Therefore, some
decisions came as a surprise to many.
I guess over the next few months many national bodies and maybe even ISO will
have a closer look at their rules again, and potentially make some changes.
I'm hard-pressed to think of a major software company that is as engaged
in open source software as Sun, with products like StarOffice, Solaris and Java
all entering the open source sphere. How has Sun balanced the drive for community
engagement with the need to guide the direction of the software?
The key is to be a participant in and contributor to each community.
There are companies that harvest the work of others and make only proportionately
small additions in the process, but Sun has rejected that approach in favor
of high levels of engagement.
In addition to the projects you mention, Sun is also highly engaged in a number
of Apache projects, in the GNOME community and in many others. When you directly
participate and contribute, you are able to guide the evolution of the software
as well, and in the most transparent and appropriate way.
Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/29/2008 at 1:15 PM