On November 15th, the European Commission posted a bunch of documents covering that office-document-format work that I’ve written about before. Simon Phipps provides a useful overview, but I read the letters from Microsoft and IBM and ran across a couple of scary bits.

Good Stuff From IBM · IBM’s letter is really very nice. “We believe it is important that public administrations in Europe and elsewhere insist on compliance with industry supported, open standards for key technologies in public sector procurements where such open standards exist.” Amen.

And the big news, of course, is that IBM is joining the OASIS working group that’s actually doing the standardization work. This is not only politically important, but I think will add value to the committee, since IBM has some real experts.

Big Blue Tollbooth? · In the middle of all this IBM goodness, the following phrase jumped out at me: “Such technologies should be published without restriction (other than reasonable royalties for essential patents) and freely available for adoption by industry.” Er, say what? Everyone knows that IBM loves patents, but why would they highlight it in the middle of a very public letter on this very particular topic?

If I were one of the leaders of the EC effort, I’d be asking IBM some pointed questions right about now. Is there some submarine patent we don’t know about, so that anyone who wants to do anything with an open document format is free to do so, but first has to negotiate the rights with IBM? This hardly seems like a step forward, and is massively inconsistent with what the EC is trying to achieve.

On the other hand, maybe this is just IBM legal boilerplate and there are no lurking nasties. But a statement from IBM that they don’t have any plans for imposing a patent tax on office-document file formats would sure be welcome.

There’s More To Life Than Word · The Microsoft letter says mostly good stuff that we can all applaud. But the first thing that jumps out at me is the repeated and very specific references to “WordProcessingML”, the official name for Microsoft Word’s XML format, let’s just save a few electrons and say “WordML”. There’s nothing wrong with opening up WordML, but how about spreadsheets? The amount of intellectual capital that’s locked up in .xls rows and columns is at least equal to that in .doc files. And then, let’s not forget that one of the main EC gripes with Microsoft Office XML is that it leaves out PowerPoint.

So the specific, repeated focus on WordML is a little weird. Once again, maybe this is just boilerplate or even a drafting error. But once again, if I were the EC, I’d be asking Microsoft for clarity around the licensing and opening-up of spreadsheets and PowerPoints.

Relicensing · For my money, the biggest problem with the Microsoft XML, along with the missing PowerPoint, is the licensing terms, which contain some kind of scary language, the most alarming being that Microsoft reserves the right to change them unilaterally.

Let me put this way: I’m not a lawyer, but if I were an investor I would have refused to go near anyone building technology to compete with MS Office on the basis that if they did a little too well, the licensing terms could be used as a lethal weapon.

So the statement in the letter that Microsoft “agrees with the recommendations to publish and provide non-discriminatory access to future versions of its WordProcessing ML specifications” is very welcome.

But here’s another puzzler: the letter’s trailing paragraphs (see the top of the signature page) contain a vigorous defense of licensing terms. Are they talking about the current file format licensing terms, and saying, despite the agreement noted above, that they’re standing pat? Once again, if I were at the EC I’d have some searching questions about what is actually being said.

Wondering · Am I being unnecessarily paranoid? I would be delighted if someone wanted to explain what IBM and Microsoft are up to here, and maybe show everyone that the problems I see really aren’t there. I’d be delighted to publish or point to anything newsworthy on the subject.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
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November 15, 2004
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