Wednesday Dec 21, 2005

IBM blackballs Ecma TC45

Bravo Bob! According to ZDNet, IBM will not be participating in the new Ecma International technical committee that's being formed just to rubber-stamp Microsoft's Office 12 file format. I support that decision, Bob - Sun will not be re-joining Ecma either right now. Bob said:

"We think there are just too many open switches on this right now for us to go in and do something there. Given the charter, it's not clear what anyone other than Microsoft is going to be doing on this committee"

Indeed. The TC has a charter that only allows it to make a "standard" that's compatible with Office 12. Ecma itself has no membership category for individual members (such as open source developers). Ecma has at best a RAND IPR policy. It seems that only one member actually has a vote that can change anything on TC45, so why waste energy over it?

Despite being one of the earliest trail-blazers of standardisation, the organisation seems to have allowed itself to become a sham, allowing vendors to claim openness where none exists. As Stephen O'Grady points out, they even market themselves as offering "a safe path which will minimise risk of change to input specs" and "A safe haven for IPR". They are the "Swiss bank account" of standards organisations - expensive to use but necessary when you have something to hide.

While single-vendor "standards" may have worked in the old days of atoms, and are arguably still important in industries like the mobile telephony industry, they have no place in the world of software where multi-lateral, transparent, inclusive, open standards are becoming mandatory because of the participation age.

Update Dec 22: Pamela has a great suggestion.

Thursday Dec 08, 2005

IP Collision

As I've been tinkering at home with Asterisk, I've been considering the growth of the voice-over-IP software and service communities and it strikes me that there's a collision coming between the two worlds of traditional telephony and software-defined telephony. It's not just that there's a business model challenge and paradigm shift, though.

One is built on the concept of patent pooling, where all participants agree that innovation is best developed by contributing know-how to a pool for open selection by other vendors, on the understanding that the technology chosen will be used as a standard with payment of royalties to the contributer. The other is growing in a world where patents are anathema, where the old "patent pool" approach seems an unethical, closed aberation.

Whatever happens, as these two worlds rush towards each other, a messy legal collision seems inevitable. It seems to me inevitable that eventually, the nobility of the old world will turn up at the doors of the frontiersmen of the new world and demand payment of tribute in the form of patents royalties.

By the way, this is another space where a freedom mechanism - the compulsion to provide an emergency call service - is being used as a lock-in mechanism by the status quo.

Monday Dec 05, 2005

Insider View

If you're following the debate about the attempt by Microsoft to have the file format for Office 12 rubber-stamped by Ecma, you really shouldn't miss the two gritty articles that Stephe Walli has written. There's possibly no better source for understanding the thinking behind Microsoft's announcements since Stephe used to work there.

The first article, When Standards Collide, analyses the motives Microsoft has had in the decisions they have made. The second article, How Microsoft Should Have Played the ODF Standards Game, shows the insight that comes from experience. Both are a must-read, whichever side of the debate you take.

Sunday Dec 04, 2005

Linking Standards and Open Source

Raucous Currawong

Maybe it's just that I'm switched on to the topic, but a theme seemed to jump out at me from my reading over the weekend. Let's review my reading list first:

  • It seems that Microsoft's "shared source" apologist Jason Matusow has been rewarded with a promotion - I'm assuming that's how to read his blog entry, anyway. Now, I'm no fan of that particular Microsoft programme as I think it's role in life is to confuse the casual observer into thinking that restrictive, controlling licensing practices are part of a continuum with true FL/OSS licensing practices. But Jason is charming, eloquent, persuasive, smart and personable and deserves a reward for gleefully entering the lion's den time after time and I wish him well in his new assignment in their corporate standards department. In his posting, Jason says:
    If you believe IBM when the say open source is open standards is open source is open standards is open source is…then I guess I’ll be doing much of the same work I have been. Or, if you look at it more closely…but that will be coming in future blogs.
    That linking of open source and open standards started me thinking.
  • Microsoft's corporate standards department comes under fire from my colleague Peter Korn. Peter wants to know why Microsoft won't join existing standards efforts. Peter's no fool - he understands why they won't join in with OASIS OpenDocument. His frustration is with their assertion that they are about to start a standards effort around accessibility. Peter says:
    [the system] Microsoft is proposing everyone standardize on isn't shipping yet. The OS it is to be part of isn't shipping yet. No shipping applications support it. No assistive technologies support it. This not-yet-shipping code only runs on one platform (pre-release Windows; not Macintosh, not UNIX). And unlike the GNOME accessibility architecture, UI Automation wasn't developed in an open process where any interested expert could take part - it was developed entirely by one company, and only a handful of folks who had to sign Microsoft Non-disclosure agreements could even see advance copies of it (and even then, weren't allowed to contribute their code to it).
    As one of the key contributors to an actual cross-corporate accessibility initiative, Peter is I think justly frustrated and outraged.
  • A group in France is proposing a new law to make dissemination of software with a data transfer ability illegal unless it supports DRM and watermarking, which will incidentally also effectively outlaw open source licensing for software. They are clearly aware of the treachery they are enacting as, instead of promoting proper debate on either subject, the technique that gave the US its national ID card scheme is being used - a last-minute amendment to a relatively unrelated law. Surely the politicians invovled can sense that the mere use of such a tactic implicates the resulting legislation as abusive? The group behind it all? An unholy alliance of media and software lobbyists representing big international corporations.

Joining the Dots

What do all these have in common? Well, it strikes me that the most powerful weapons against actual freedom are in fact the mechanisms society has previously put in place to defend or create freedom in an earlier age.

  • Open standards started as a mechanism for creating a level playing field in markets, to neutralise monopolists. I've seen the corporate players of the standards game in action at first hand, and it's changed into a mechanism to reinforce the market power of the powerful and lock out the newcomer.
  • Then we see the democratic process abused to re-inforce the position of the monopolist, in the name of 'law', with the interests of the individual citizen almost forgotten in the interplay of corporate lobbyists.
  • Patents, which started as a social contract to enrich the shared knowledge of society, are now the assumed right of corporations, with the social dimension forgotten.

Dystopian? Well, yes - it boils down to the observation that creating any system creates with it the game that will abuse it. But this seems to me to be at the heart of the relation Jason questioned.

Yes, Jason, open source and open standards are linked in two ways. First, the most freedom for the most people is created with truly open standards implemented in truly open communities under truly open licenses. But second, open standards have been successfully subverted by monopolists. How long can open source escape a similar fate? Please tell me that's not your new job.

Monday Nov 28, 2005

Flattered but not impressed

If imitation is the sincerest part of flattery, then we at Sun feel very flattered by Microsoft's decision to start using non-assert covenants as a way to give developers freedom from fear in their use of standards (even if they don't credit us). Like Andy Updegrove, I've taken some time to consider their document, and I've some comments I hope they'll take on board when they get round to making a covenant that actually applies to Office 12 or to the work they'll offer to Ecma International (neither of which has happened yet1).

In the spirit of contribution, then, here are six observations about their covenant:

  1. Patent protection is contingent on a conformant implementation. "Conformant" is not defined, meaning there is uncertainty needing legal advice.2
  2. There is no provision for partial implementation, meaning true community-based development is not covered until complete.
  3. It may well mean that implementation of just a word processor is impossible - it implies that you have to implement everything (spreadsheets & all) to reach the bar.
  4. It is specific to the version currently existing, meaning I can be hooked into supporting it now, but when Office 12 or Office 13 comes out & I update to be compatible with the format in that I can get sued. The covenant Sun uses creates ongoing protection.
  5. It does not grant patents to the ECMA standard as it only applies to Office 11 XML. This means a new covenant will be needed for the ECMA work.
  6. If the same form of words were used for a contribution to ECMA, then those prototyping the ongoing evolution of the standard as ECMA changed it would lose protection the instant any change was made. It applies only to Microsoft's input, not to ECMA's output. Or maybe they would rather ECMA didn't change anything?3

Together, these six problems seem to be show-stoppers for open source, no matter how positive Brian Jones or even Larry Rosen may feel about it all - as David Berlind says, we only know they won't sue what they unilaterally consider to be "conforming" uses. As it stands, I don't think their covenant gives open source developers sufficient confidence to implement the spec it covers4, let alone the forthcoming specs that it doesn't5. Assuming Microsoft intends, as they say, to open their data formats, we expect to see some further work and clarification to address these issues6.

  1. Update: I note Brian has commented that the same words will be used for the Office 12 formats.
  2. It's been pointed out to me that the use of the word "conformant" probably also renders the specification unimplementable under the GPL by placing a restriction on usage that does not appear in the GPL.
  3. Stephen O'Grady hints that maybe that's the whole point...
  4. I am advised to point out that I am expressing my opinion and not offering legal advice which, of course, is something you can only get from a qualified and expensive professional.
  5. One other problem: right now, the only way to even see the specs is to use Microsoft Office as they are packaged only for use with that product. Consequently I would have to agree to the Office EULA to proceed, and the covenant explicitly avoids changing those terms.
  6. Not to say this isn't a huge step forwards for Microsoft. Congratulations, folks, keep stepping.

Thursday Sep 29, 2005

Raising the bar on patents and standards

Tree Peony

Great news for OpenDocument fans. The guy from Microsoft couldn't have known this, but we were already working on a move that raises the bar on what it means to create a truly open standard. Yesterday, Sun sent to OASIS a new statement concerning patents on the OpenDocument standard. To decode this statement for you, it says that Sun promises not to enforce any patent in any country against any implementation of the OpenDocument format (ODF). That means that, unless you're intending to sue Sun in connection with ODF, you can use ODF with confidence and ignore the FUD.

To dive deeper on the key features:

  1. It's a blanket promise connected with ODF that's not restricted to particular facets or features - it doesn't just have a list of a few carefully-selected patents and leave you to wonder what's not granted. This is for me a key philosophical point. While I congratulate the gesture behind them, previous attempts at patent protection using the "patent commons" approach glorify patents, forcing anyone who would benefit from the apparent protection to become a patent expert. A blanket statement like this just says "no need to look, you're safe, Sun is on your side".
  2. It's irrevocable. It's a promise you can rely on, regardless of changes in Sun and the industry.
  3. It's global. No games involving smiles in one country and attacks in places that don't hit the news so much.
  4. It's not time-limited - there's no "everything before this point" clause. It extends into new features added to future versions of ODF all the time Sun continues contributing to its development.
  5. It's reciprocal (we won't sue you if you don't sue us). That means that we're still able to take action to protect ourselves and the community we participate in, despite providing rock-solid safety for developers and end-users.
  6. There's no bureaucracy. Some moves in the past have sounded generous but have required some sort of action to register a license or act in some other way that limits redistribution of software that's trying to benefit from the protection.
  7. It's simple and clear. There is no game being played.
  8. There's no "essential claims" language. Most statements like this one include language that says that you only get a "waiver" if you've no choice but to infringe the patent. This statement applies regardless. [Thanks to Orcmid, below, for this one]

While this is hugely important and re-assuring for ODF, it's even more important for open standards, as David Berlind points out. It provides an example of how to use patents in a defensive, open-source-friendly way. It provides a model for patent protection that doesn't involve the glorification of software patents. It balances the needs of the corporation to retain self-defence capability in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate IPR and the needs of open source developers to be freed from fear of legal attack.

It is inexpensive for corporations to make this sort of statement - it is an expression of vision rather than the carefully gamed result of an exhaustive patent search and a technical analysis of its outcomes. In my view, it sets the standard for future standards and I am thrilled we've taken this step. We've not patented this idea; feel free to copy it and set the open source world free of fear of legal action over 'open' standards.


Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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