Patrick Durusau doesn’t really get it.

For those of you who have been following the Office Open XML standards process, you may have heard of Patrick Durusau. For those of you who haven’t heard of him, he is the chair of the V1 group, which is the US representative group to the ISO (International Organization for Standards, and no, don’t ask why it is called ISO instead of IOS) JTC1/SC34 working group. That may be a bit much to say all at once, so take a breath, then continue on.

Caught your breath? Well, lets dig in.

First, we really need to talk about OOXML and the fuss that has surrounded it. You can take a look at articles on Slashdot on the matter, then there is the wiki link from above, and then there is the NO OOXML site. For a while, Patrick stayed out of the middle of it. However, he changed tack and not only started to support it, but became the poster child of support for it. A lot of his support has focused around promoting competition.

His latest article, post ISO approval, is Competition and OpenXML (yes, it is a PDF, sorry about that). In it, he mentions that “OpenXML does promote competition, just not the sort that some people are interested in promoting.” It would seem that he is just opposing the “large, expensive and not very nimble” companies that want their own format to be used, while those benefiting are those companies that can “innovate data services based on the new MS format.” Who these companies are, and what data services they are creating, oh sorry, innovating, is left for the reader to fill in.

However, there is an interesting bit on his web page with the link to the document, namely he states:

Summary: OpenXML promotes greater competition in the after market of add-ons for MS Office.

Well, thank you Patrick. You are basically saying that OpenXML does not provide any competitive gains for companies that might want to right their own OOXML editor, just the companies that write add-ons for MS Office. This, of course, requires each person who wants to use OpenXML to buy MS Office to begin with.

Patrick, maybe you don’t get it. Creating competition is not about creating an environment that allows companies to write add-ons to someone else’s product, competition is about creating an environment that allows companies to write competing products to someone else’s product.

Let us try to move this out of the land of computers, and into something more people can understand, because when you mention computers, software, technology, file formats, or anything like that, many people’s eyes glaze over. How about cars? You know, those things with an engine, wheels, steering wheel, seats, seat belts, radio, cup holders, all that fun stuff.

What if ISO approved a standard for cars. However, the standard they approved was written by one car company, and included patented technology. Maybe they patented how big the engine is, or what side of the car the steering wheel is on. Now, this would mean that anyone who built cars using the ISO standard would either have to pay a license for the design, or they could be sued. The car company offers the design with a promise not to sue anyone for use of it, and not charge a license fee, with two caveats:

  1. Only the current and their very next revision is allowed to be used
  2. Any changes made by ISO is not covered

That would mean that if someone found a serious flaw in the design, and they offered a change to ISO to fix it, that changed version would not be covered by the promise not to sue. Therefore, anyone who wanted to build the car without the serious flaw, would have to pay the first car company a license fee, which could be anywhere from a few dollars per car, to hundreds of thousands of dollars per car. The decision for how much to charge is left to the car company with the patents to decide. If anyone doesn’t like that idea, and builds a car to the ISO standard anyways, they could be sued.

Patrick is saying that this is OK, because other companies could make accessories for the cars built by the first company, since there is an ISO standard to work with. Stuff like seat covers, steering wheel covers, a knob for the gear shift, lights to go under the car, that kind of stuff.

That is the same situation that is faced with the OOXML standard. The Microsoft Covenant Not to Sue has already been discussed in this article at Groklaw. The covenant only covers the current and next (Office 12) version of OOXML, but does not mention any versions after that, and does not cover versions approved by ISO that was not created by Microsoft. Meaning that ISO could approve changes to the OOXML standard, and Microsoft could then say that people either have to pay a fee for the technology, or they can not use it. Microsoft gets their cake, an ISO standard, and they get to eat it too, they get to keep other people from using it without paying out the nose.

Thanks Patrick, thanks a lot.


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