Wednesday Feb 27, 2008

Open Standards, Open Source, Open Access to IP, and Open Dialog

Bill Smith

At Sun, we consider Open Standards, Open Source, Open Access to IP, and Open Dialog to be key tenets of our corporate philosophy. In this spirit, we'd like to offer the following thoughts given the recent publication of a series of documents (Open XML Policy Briefing) related to XML formats for office documents, their development, and standardization.

Bill Smith, Director of Business Strategy, Sun Labs.

Open Access to IP

Sun pioneered the use of Non-Assertion Covenants (NACs) as a means to openly, clearly, succinctly, and unambiguously state our intentions with respect to patents, especially in standards-setting environments. NACs have a number of benefits, including their Open Source–friendly nature of not requiring any signed license. As a result their use is on the rise, with a number of companies issuing them in a variety of areas. However, not all NACs are equivalent (nor need they be) and in fact significant differences exist.

With respect to ODF 1.0, Sun promises not to assert any of our patents against any implementation. This statement is unambiguous, clearly stating that any and all of our patents have been taken off the table in this field, subject to a reciprocity clause covering all patents held by a recipient. Our promise applies to all portions of the ODF 1.0 specification, including other specifications included by reference. In addition, our ODF 1.0 Covenant offers a prospective promise regarding subsequent versions of ODF in which development Sun participates.

It has been suggested that our Covenant is non-standard. To the extent it is, we are happy to offer it as a model for others to copy – as has already happened.

Open Standards, Open Source, Open Documents

Sun has long supported Open Standards and Open Source and our commitment to them remains strong and unwavering.

Sun, together with ten other OASIS members, supported the formation of a Technical Committee at OASIS to address the needs of individuals, corporations, and governments who had expressed the requirement to freely choose systems and software for their long-term document processing needs. By 2002, when the TC was formed, Open Source and XML-based standards had become well-established and well-regarded as mechanisms to support such free choice. The OpenOffice.org application had established itself as a leading Open Source office productivity suite but was lacking a companion Open Standards file format. XML was the sensible choice for such a file format and OASIS the obvious place to undertake its development.

Starting with the OpenOffice.org XML format specification as input, the Technical Committee worked over a period of many months to produce a high-quality specification. From its inception, the TC performed all of its work, as required by OASIS process, in an open manner. All committee mail lists, document drafts, and comments are available for public review and publicly archived to help others understand and learn from ODF's development process.

While the specification was being written and reviewed, developers at OpenOffice.org (many of whom are Sun employees) made changes to ensure that their Open Source implementation would be in sync with the specification when it was adopted as a standard. Availability of both a comprehensive specification of the ODF file format and Open Source implementations of products that support that format have fostered the emergence of a thriving market. Today, some 15 different products support ODF.

ODF is well-specified, comprehensively documented, and has gone through a number of rigorous and transparent public reviews. V1.1 consists of 738 pages with 37 references to other specifications. A companion document, 53 pages in length, discusses accessibility issues in general, provides guidance to (ODF) application developers, and makes recommendations to content creators.

V1.1 of the specification was developed in part to respond to accessibility concerns that were raised after publication of V1.0. The OASIS TC responsible for ODF established a subcommittee to investigate these concerns and it produced a report reviewing the issues and making specific recommendations. The Executive Summary of the report stated in part:

The ODF Accessibility Subcommittee has identified 9 accessibility issues in ODF 1.0, and proposes candidate solutions to them. With these changes, we believe that ODF will meet or exceed the accessibility support provided in all other office file formats as well as that specified in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0.

All of the subcommittee's recommendations were accepted and adopted as part of ODF V1.1.

The small number of issues listed in the report is in large measure the result of the requirement by the ODF TC Charter to reuse other open standards and concepts whenever possible. To the extent those standards are accessibility friendly, ODF is. By reusing standards, ODF reduces complexity (though not functionality) and length (though not completeness) while enhancing interoperability. ODF is able to “stand on the shoulders of others,” thereby reducing duplication of effort and facilitating consistency across a broad set of applications and implementations.

Questions have arisen regarding ODF's support for financial formulas, and V1.2 will address these questions. ODF 1.0 did not specify a financial formula language. While the TC found that this mechanism did not present significant short-term interoperability issues, it was recognized as a long-term issue and is being addressed in Version 1.2.

Rather than base its financial formula language on a single implementation or application, the TC chose to specify formulas based on broad industry experience and best practices, by examining a number of applications and their formula support. The financial formula language in ODF 1.2 is based on a review of over 10 different products and their formula languages. ODF V1.2 is expected to be published in final form later this year.

Is ODF perfect? Certainly not, but those responsible for its development and maintenance have demonstrated a willingness to engage in Open Dialog and respond to issues in a timely fashion using agreed-upon procedures. That is the mark of a truly Open Standard.

Open Dialog

All Sun employees have a responsibility to engage in Open Dialog, question conventional wisdom, and offer honest views (which are occasionally contrarian!). We ask questions, challenge assumptions, and propose solutions in a collaborative fashion, working across traditional boundaries for the benefit of our customers and Sun as a whole. We recognize and respect that not all companies support such diversity of opinion, questioning of authority, or collaboration with others. For us, it's just business as usual – and we thrive on it.

Sun has supported and will continue to support participation in Open Standards efforts. We believe that Open Dialog coupled with direct discussion of technical issues can result in superior specifications (and interoperable products) in short time periods. The development of XML, the foundation of ODF and OOXML, is an excellent example of this approach that brought together partners and competitors to work towards a common goal – a pattern we would like to see repeated.

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