Saturday, April 15, 2006

I'm Struggling A Bit with the Open Document Concept

In Jonathan Schwartz's March 10th blog, he asserts the need for an open standard for document composition. He cites the example of a FEMA disaster relief site that required IE 6. (The site also required Java but apparently Jonathan is ok with that since it is a Sun tool). He then cites a problem he had in accessing webcams of California highways in order to prepare for a trip to Lake Tahoe because he was using his non-Windows laptop and the web cam site required Windows Media 9.
(Of course, the question to ask is: What format was the video actually in? If the site "required" WMP but the file was actually an MPEG, then the site didn't really require WMP.)
Jonathan later makes a statement that at first seems plausible:
As a tax paying citizen of the state, my government was inadvertently telling me I could not receive state emergency services without buying a Microsoft product. Governor Schwarzenegger, I don't want my or my employer's tax dollars going to promote a monopoly in California. (Love them though I do as a business partner.) ... It seems plainly wrong for a government to suggest that citizens purchase Microsoft Word before reading a storm warning or ballot initiative. Or that they abandon their Macintosh to run Internet Explorer before applying for disaster relief. Or that they buy a Windows Mobile phone before requesting 911. Or that they have Solaris installed to pay their taxes.
The factor that I think Jonathan ignores is the dynamic of ubiquity. A search on Google nets a substantial list of browsers an end-user can choose to surf with. Some examples are: IE, FireFox, Mozilla, Netscape, Opera, AOL's browser (Why does AOL install this crap browser with AIM and not give me the option to uninstall it but keep AIM??) Avant Browser, Apple Safari, Sun's Hot Java Browser, etc.

To ask a web developer to optimize their site's code for the myriad web browsers out on the market is to ask them to spend a lot of time that has diminshing return for the investment of time and money. Why? Because aside from IE and the Mozilla derivatives, all the other browsers are nich players eating the crumbs left over from Microsoft. Firm current numbers are hard to obtain but Microsoft IE has about 80 - 85% of the browser market with the remainder taken up by the other players.

It could be argued that optimizing for IE would be a wise financial decision because a web site optimized for IE will offer services to the maximum number of users. One could even argue that it is a decision "for the people," since optimizing for IE ensures the largest number of people have the best opportunity for accessing information.

So let's drill down into more of what Jonathan says and implies:

He says it's unfair for a video stream to require a certain kind of player. He objects to a government web site that requires a certain kind of player or viewer to access the contents of a file. Yet, the Open Document consortium he refers to considers a PDF file to be an open document standard. How can this be? A PDF viewer is needed in order to read a PDF document.

"Yeah but that's different from a Word document or an Excel document. You have to have Office to read Office documents." No, you do not. You can download Office viewers here.

What's the difference between using an Office viewer and using Adobe Acrobat Reader to read files?

Oh yeah. The difference is that one is Microsoft, which is inherently evil and the other is not-Microsoft and by George Bush Logic (If you aren't with us, you're against us), a PDF file or any other non-Microsoft format is inherently virtuous, even though all file formats require some form of a viewer.

Video is the same problem, just in a different format. There are a number of players in the video market: Windows Media Player, Real Player, Quick Time, DivX, etc. Each of these players can play MPEG files, which is fairly ubiquitous but like an MP3 file, is older and lacks contemporary compression and DRM capabilities. At the same time, however, these players are owned by companies that seek to make money through the use of their proprietary video formats.

Is it realistic for the Open Document Consortium to expect that Real, Microsoft and Apple are going to cannibalize their own formats in the interest of spreading the good gospel of an open source video format? Not likely. They might participate in an open video standard but my guess is that they would insist in characteristics of the standard that will not allow the open source video format to trump their own.

So, either an open source video format will suck and be endorsed by the video player companies or it will rock but languish as a marginal competitive option because the open source format would come late into the game and be unable to compete with Microsoft, Apple and Real for market share.

While a part of me agrees with Jonathan's concept, I think it is lacking an appreciation of ubiquity and the market dynamics associated with driving acceptance of an open source document format. The claims that Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents aren't accessible by those who don't have Office are bogus because viewers are available. "But there isn't a Word viewer for my Solaris box or my Amiga box or my TRS-80 Model III box or my...." Right. Welcome to the open market.

I struggle with the whole open document standard a bit because it smacks of socialism to me. Much of the rhetoric is arrayed against Microsoft yet curiously, no one complains about Apple's AAC format for audio compression. This is strange considering that Apple is clearly the monopolist in the audio market. Why isn't the open document community railing against Apple? Simple.

Most of the open document furor is not about open documents but about Microsoft's hegemony. I guarantee you if Sun Microsystems had the dominant media player format on the market and they were making money off licensing the format and selling the application to create content, Jonathan wouldn't be advocating for an open format. I know this is blunt, but this is the argument of market losers. They haven't been able to out-compete Microsoft or even Apple, so they try to compel an open standard under the banner of virtue and equal access to all people.

So they want to try to whip people into a "Hey, this is bullshit!" frenzy to try to compel state and federal governments to require an open document format. Why? Because it's a great strategy to wipe out Microsoft's control of the Office market: If the state and federal governments require open document formats, then this will flow downhill to businesses wanting to make money from government contracts and this ultimately flows to consumers.

The rhetoric, however, is disingenuous because every file format needs a "viewer" and most of the file formats that are out there require a viewer at minimum and all require the purchase of a program to create content. Want to create a QuickTime movie? No problem: give Apple $30 and you're good to go. Want to create a PDF and take advantage of all that the PDF format allows? No problem. $450 and its all yours.

The solution of the open document format is also flawed by the consistently sub-par quality of open source applications. OpenOffice/StarOffice's GUI is juvenille and for all of the open source community's jabbering about how Microsoft suppresses innovation, OpenOffice is comically nearly identical to Microsoft Office in terms of its iconography and menu structure.

I have a tremendous level of respect for Jonathan. In my opinion, he is one of the deepest thinkers in the IT community. He has much greater substance and is substantially less strident than his CEO, Scott McNealy. Where McNealy whines and pouts that Sun isn't dominant anymore, Schwartz slyly, cleverly and sarcastically attacks his competitors with wit and wisdom. This said, I disagree with what Jonathan advocates and complains about. I think his ideas about open documents ignore the dynamics of ubiquity and the historical lack of sophistication in open source products (in terms of the end-user experience). I know Jonathan understands this because his brilliant article on electricity demonstrates his knowledge of the dynamics of ubiquity and standards. In fact, his blog article was deeply instructive for me and my thinking about ubiquity.

What I would like to see Jonathan do is treat the open document format not by clamoring for something merely "other than Microsoft," but to explain how an open document format would work in the real world: how would he gain participation from the current dominant market players? Why does Jonathan consider a site optimized for technology that has dominant market presence a disadvantage for citizens? After all, the site he questioned used Java. Why is it legitimate for the government to use Java but not Windows Media Player?

If Jonathan wants to convince me that the open document format is a viable solution that most people don't even consider to be a problem, then he needs to articulate how this is going to happen in an open market. He's smarter than me and I need to understand this before I can agree with him. So far, his argument seems to be based on the inherent righteousness of open source and as regular readers of my blog know, I patently reject that inherent characteristic.