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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 the mark?
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 usage scenarios.

One argument I hear is that OOXML and ODF are simply serializations of their respective productivity suites (MS Office for OOXML, 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 XML file format, not the implementation.

That's a huge difference because the XML file format was designed with application, vendor and platform independence in mind. That is one reason why the XML file format reused many W3C standards. In addition, the specification process of the XML format has been transparent and public since the foundation of the 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

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