More on the OpenXML discussion: the CompTIA view on future-proofing IT and standards

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The last time I wrote about the OpenXML votes in New Zealand my blog attracted some good comments – mostly from the open source community.

Just after my blog post I met the NZOSS President Don Christie during a event here in Wellington, and he told me I was in the wrong side of the fence on this one. But we agreed that we have to find a side and stick with it anyway…

Since then Standards New Zealand decided to cast NO to the OpenXML standard, but Standards New Zealand has created an advisory group to meet for five days in Geneva to discuss concerns raised during the voting. The participants in this group are Internet NZ, NZ Open Source Society (technical),  NZ Open Source Society (strategist), IBM NZ, Microsoft NZ, Microsoft NZ partner, Archives New Zealand, State Services Commission and the NZ Computer Society.

Now I have received a copy of a document written by CompTIA’s Michael Mudd, and I am reproducing the document here because it pretty much reflects my way of thinking on this matter.

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The CompTIA is a global trade association representing the business interests of the information technology industry. For more than 25 years CompTIA has provided research, networking and partnering opportunities to its 20,000 plus members in 102 countries. The association is involved in developing standards and best practices, and influencing the political, economic and educational arenas that impact IT worldwide.

Future-proofing IT Policy – is it possible, or desirable?
By Michael Mudd

I imagine you’re enjoying this article on your Kenbak-2000 personal computer, or secretly wishing you were the richest man in the world, John Blankenbaker. This easily could have been the case if in 1971 the Kenbak-1, subsequently considered by the Computer History Museum as the world’s first ‘personal computer (PC),’ had been recognized as the sole standard for the future development of the PC.

Think; no 1977 Trinity (Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore PET) or IBM 5150 in 1981, which arguably set the scene for the entire PC era, making household names of previously niche players such as Intel and Microsoft. Thankfully, while certain patents were awarded to the Kenbak-1, we can thank IT industry policy-makers of the time for seeing how much more innovation and invention was left in the PC industry. Even more importantly the market needed more time to reward the companies who were delivering systems that could best meet their needs. This ability to create an environment where innovation flourished, while intellectual property was still credited and protected means that today nearly two billion PCs have been sold, versus the 40 Kenbak-1 PCs that made it off the production line.

The ability to allow continuous market-driven innovation, rather than creating standards and policies based on an early view of what the world of tomorrow might look like is central to business success – it means that you’re not deciphering this article from Morse code, or driving to work in a Model-T Ford.

Why is Innovation Important – Open Innovation versus Closed Innovation
The advent of the Internet has fundamentally changed the way the businesses define business models and harness innovation. Henry Chesbrough in his book “Open Innovation, the New Imperative for Creating Profit from Technology” refers to the time before and after the Internet, as ‘Closed Innovation’ and ‘Open Innovation,’ respectively.

Before the wide adoption of the Internet, innovation used to be a closed process, undertaken with a silo-mentality. Business leaders used to think that to profit from research and development that, like John Blankenbaker, they had to be first to market. They would have to directly hire people to make discoveries, develop and market the discoveries themselves and then use tools such as patents to control this intellectual property so that competitors could not share in the spoils.

Chesbrough notes that today’s Internet-powered competitive business landscape makes closed innovation increasing hard to achieve. Incredibly fluid employee availability and mobility, the proliferation of small market-driven technology businesses (e.g. today small businesses accounted for over 99 per cent of all businesses), outsourcing, off shoring and the proliferation of new market-driven sources of innovation means that with great product choice and faster innovation cycles that customers increasingly want product interoperability, rather than a rigid, pre-defined single-standard.

Document Standards – Why Should Businesses Care?
There is an interoperability versus single-standard debate raging at the moment, which has a direct impact on business – should the Open Document Format (ODF) be the sole standard for business documents, or should Office Open XML (OOXML) also be allowed a choice for businesses and document users?

Data formats have been around as long as computing. They reflect the varying capabilities and functions of different computing systems and have evolved as those computing systems have evolved. Punch cards were once commonplace, but you wouldn’t think to use them today. In the decades since their use, a wide range of formats (TXT, PDF, HTML, and DOC, to name a few) have become popular because they meet specific user needs and tap into new computing capabilities.

Two years ago Microsoft submitted Office Open XML to Ecma International, an international association founded in 1961 and dedicated to the standardization of information, to go through the process to make it an open standard. A growing list of companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Novell, Xandros, Linspire, TurboLinux, Corel and Dataviz recognized the desire of users of their software to work with multiple formats and are giving those users the tools they need to do so. However, despite industry belief that customers would be happy to choose, there is a chance in March next year that some national body members of the ISO may not approve OOXML as a document standard. In a preliminary vote last September, 51 national bodes voted yes, but under the consensus system of the ISO this was insufficient.

We should expect the creation of new formats in the future as technology evolves (e.g. Uniform Office Format, or UOF, under development in China, also a group of former ODF supporters have broken away from the ODF standard and are now promoting another document format standard called CDF),  and as has always been the case, users should be able to choose the formats that work best for them, especially if they are fundamentally different formats that meet different needs in the marketplace, as is the case here.

OOXML sceptics argue that OOXML contains Microsoft-specific legacy formats which can cause interoperability problems, and will serve only to strengthen Microsoft’s domination in the office productivity software market. OOXML is already being used in the 2007 Microsoft Office system, making it easier for people to use the software suite that creates the vast majority of the world’s business document to create and share documents, regardless of the platform or application.

Customers who want to work with multiple formats can do so now and into the future through the use of tools called ‘connectors.’ However, the simple fact is that OOXML should be agreed as an interoperable standard along with ODF (and whatever other standards meet the criteria) to allow the market to choose which one they will use to achieve what they need with their business documents.

Standards and policy – when the market decides, we all win!
Suppose Charles H. Duell, Director of the U.S. Patent Office had shut it down following his 1899 proclamation that ‘everything that can be invented, has been invented.” When people take a narrow view of what is achievable through technology, innovation is the inevitable collateral damage – especially dangerous at a time when the governments of Asia are looking to ICT as a major value-add to economic outputs and creating jobs.

I recently attended a meeting in Malaysia where there was a clear statement from the Honourable Dato Dr. Jamaludin Jarjis, Malaysia’s Minister of Schience, Technology and Innovation, that the country should adopt an open innovation model and that this should be market driven. CompTIA supports industry standards and strongly believes that standards such as OOXML are good for any countries in the region that want to pursue Open Innovation approaches. I’m not necessarily saying that the market would choose to use OOXML, but the market needs the opportunity to decide, otherwise we could be building an environment that stifles, rather than encourages innovation.

If Mr. Duell had done that in 1899, I might still be wearing a fashionable Victorian knee length frock coat and a top hat.

Michael Mudd, Director of Public Policy, Asia-Pacific, CompTIA.
Mike Mudd is the Director of Public Policy for Asia Pacific and has responsibility for running CompTIA’s Public Policy initiatives for the region encompassing Japan to Australia and China and India. This region, home to half the worlds population is also amongst the most dynamic and challenging for the ICT industry in the 21st century.

I agree with its basis that a standard doesn’t need to be a single unique entity, but it can be multiple agreed codes.

For full disclosure I must inform you that I found this document with the help of Microsoft New Zealand. Of course if the NZOSS or any other commenter wants to send me something similar I am happy to write about it too. Or just comment below.