Why Free Standards Matter

Imagine you live on a sleepy street in a coastal town, say Rio de Janeiro. And a hurricane or tsunami hits your shores. And the government agency responsible for telling you how and where to get relief, for provisioning aid and emergency services, sends out a curious message: if you can’t afford a copy of Microsoft Windows, we’re sorry, we can’t help you.

That’s exactly what happened in New Orleans a few months back. Which led many folks to see the convergence of telecommunications, technology and media in a very personal, and dissatisfying way – while demonstrating the vanishing distinction between web services, social services and emergency services. The network is all about moving data around, whether purchase orders, tax forms or storm paths.

Last weekend, I had a similar personal experience. I was on my way to show my kids what snow looked like, taking them to Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra mountains. If you know Northern California, you know that means crossing Donner Pass. A place that makes me think of that great Andy Grove quote, “only the paranoid survive.” During winter storms, you don’t drive through that area lightly – there are even police at checkpoints to make sure you’re well equipped – with chains for your tires, or a four wheel drive vehicle. City-folks like me even pack water, food and blankets. Just in case.

Before leaving, I checked the weather. A winter storm was approaching, and knowing the State of California places web cameras in key locations to help monitor traffic, I went off to a search engine, and typed “California highway video” to get a real time view of road conditions.

And what did I see?

A California State Agency web site that required Windows Media 9. I happened to be running my Solaris laptop at the time. So I couldn’t receive the video. 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.)

So now you know why the Open Document Format Alliance is important – in a democratic society, agencies, corporations or individuals that serve the public’s interest should be free to do so without burdening their constituents with an obligation to purchase one company’s product. That’s what the ODF Alliance will help achieve – by creating and making freely available to anyone that wants it, a standard for representing document based information.

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.

And rather than sit by and complain, several of us – competitors and partners alike, along with a broad cross section of global industry and library associations – are all banded together to promote a standard for the free interchange of document based information. A standard that doesn’t require any one company’s technology, or a royalty check or fear of patent litigation. A standard that leverages a common interest in having a free, open and neutral standard to which any company, individual or government can subscribe.

A standard that serves the public’s interest.

And to put our money where our mouths are, the first application to fully support ODF is the world’s most popular free/open source office productivity suite, OpenOffice – which we encourage governments to distribute to their citizens. There’s no better way to serve the public’s interest than to give them freedom.

And choice.


Filed under General

21 responses to “Why Free Standards Matter

  1. Bharath.R

    Time to add Google (through Upstartle’s Writely) to the list of companies freely “distributing” ODF-capable office suites. 🙂

  2. I simply wish that ODF would have happened years ago and Microsoft would have changed its tactics to fit. Waiting is no fun at all. A few years down the road and we may see tangible differences, but now we’re still stuck with old, closed standards. Too bad a revolution can’t take place overnight!

  3. I heartily agree with you. Oddly enough though, I can’t even watch those videos in VLC (using the direct mms url found in the .asx file), and I usually use VLC to watch these kind of videos. It might be a VLC-specific error though.
    I think machine architecture and operating system diversity is only going to increase in the future, a lot due to the new wave of all kinds of mobile devices. So efforts to provide an open free format that everyone can use is highly welcomed.


    So when will there be an Open Video format for Sun to support?

  5. Raj

    Another example from a situation which many of the citizens might not know much about. All tax paying non-citizen immigrants also have to put up with this “Particular Browser/Software Required/Recommended” nonsense when dealing with Immigration Services. Check out the customer login page for Immigration Services (USCIS).


    If you access this page from a non-IE browser, you get an error saying “You must correct the following error(s) before proceeding: We have determined you are using Netscape. Account Creation and Login are not compatible with Netscape 4.7 and some later versions. If you are using this version of the browser, we recommend that you use Internet Explorer version 6.0.”

    Thankfully, it also shows the login and password boxes and trying to register/login from non-IE browser works absolutely fine without changing UserAgent etc (Works from my Apple Safari and Firefox on Apple/Windows/Linux). Have no idea why the silly warning comes up that would deter any non-techie person from trying with non-IE browsers. Many probably do not, because they are afraid the non-IE browsers with the USCIS site might screw up something and mess up their immigration related matters.

    This is least of the problems with the “Customer Service” (or lack thereof) of USCIS, but then we digress….

  6. Fabien Mannessier

    I definitly agree with you. But, it’s even worse when the government put M$ office as part of the curriculum for primary schools. They pay the software for all public schools, make private schools have to buy it also, and, a shame, prepare a huge mass of future client for that monopoly.
    I nearly have tears when I see my children proudly show me how to use Windows or Office from what they learned at school, and nobody doesn’t bear teaching them Linux or Openoffice. How many children are educated to believe that M$ products are the only way to use a computer ?

  7. But more importantly….How did your kids like the snow?

  8. That’s why Bill Gates hated HTML, it’s a open standard. So Microsoft added a lot of DHTML stuff only works on IE. Unfortunately, the only way for OpenOffice to truly succeed short term is to improve its MS Office capability. Long term, SUN should partner with the OLPC project (One Laptop Per Child), so kids of the world grow up with open standards.

  9. Peter Firmstone

    I can hardly wait until Open Document becomes an ISO standard, I’m going to start pushing it, telling our customers and suppliers that we use an ISO standard document format. In Engineering, ISO is highly regarded.

  10. I hate all those WMV-files on the web. Fact is though that all Open (Source/Systems) providers have no real alternative for Windows (streaming) Media Server. There needs to be a free alternative server, easy to use, easy to setup, which can serve up streaming or not, for example Flash Video, Mpeg, Ogg, Real, etc, and maybe even WMV. I know you can setup linux with icecast etc, but that isn’t good enough (the proof is in the marketshare imho). A good enough free alternative to Windows Media Encoder doesn’t exist also. WMV is the easiest solution right now. That should change as quickly as possible.

  11. Dennis Winz

    I have watched the tactics of Microsoft since the 80’s and it well and truly is abhorrent. At every turn they make every effort to subvert any standard and it seems that people have given up. Then along come real standards with enough backing that they (MS) have to comply. Started with stolen ideas…. DOS….the command line, look at the syntax of the commands, “looks and feels” just like CP/M. Then with a set of giant cajones they lay claim to Windows, but becuase of the small and narrow Unix community, few knew about X11 Windows and a display manager and just by ignorance people believed. But it never really had the power and scope and still doesn’t. I am an American living in New Zealand and see the sheep always following the leader, driven by the dogs barking at the tail end of things. Amazing how a few dogs can drive an entire herd. I play my mp3’s (yes I have the actual albums) and movies (have those also) on my Linux box, happily using dialup and simply ignore some things. I get MS files and formating changes on what I see in Open Office as the MS version changes. I can draw and write and layout circuits and happily cross compile. All the while knowing I am not a sheep, but worried that the herd will be driven over a cliff, none the wiser. Me, I will have my system and it will work.

  12. Anantha

    OK, help me understand why you’re ragging on MS Office when indeed the document format has been published by MS?
    Before you ramble on let me assure you that I’m a UNIX/Solaris bigot; wouldn’t consider anything else for the ‘big iron’. Along the same lines I want to get ‘work’ done on my desktop and want the ‘best’ productivity tool. That’s why I use MS Office to be productive. BTW, do inform me when you develop a tool that is more fun to work than MS Office, I’ll be glad to switch. I’m no wizard in worksheets but I can do ‘magic’ using Excel. I’ve been to many Sun presentations in the last 2 years where they use OpenOffice for presentations, I’m sorry it’s funny watching the misaligned text/graphics.
    Just curious, which w/s does Sun finance department use?

  13. Jonathan,
    Just wondering if or when you will inform our global IT community that SUN’s new ‘T1’ is the o-n-l-y CPU that’s GPL compliant.
    (CPU’s from others are typically proprietary.)
    Appears a MAJOR marketing ‘feature’ to me!
    Must acquire this ware for my future efforts, yet another superlative product from Marc’s team.

  14. Osman Din

    I think the government cannot possibly cover every single platform. Perfection is impossible, but certainly that doesn’t mean it has to be this way. The challenge for ODF is that of branding/promoting. By itself, a non computer audience will always be lagging behind (at least until there’s a competent government board that decides what applications/platforms should the govt sites use).

  15. Tom

    Your poor poor New Years resolution….:)

  16. Anonymous

    Microsoft submitted WMV9
    format for standardisation in 2003 …. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VC-1
    There are Linux, OS/X and other implementations of WMV9.
    Perhaps you prefer to use Real?

  17. The New Orleans story is yet another horrifying yet true-life example of how it’s reallllly important to let everyone use any tools they can to do their work.
    Various European and South American countries either do require open source, or are working on it. I think the US city, county, state, and federal governments, governing as they do a country with the ideal of equal opportunity, should see that requiring purchase of a product for essential or important tasks is wrong.
    Thanks for posting this.

  18. Yesterday Bob Sutor, VP of IBM has come to our office to enlightened us on the need for open standards in eGovernance domain. We are subscribed to open standards.

  19. Bemused

    Mr. Schwartz. Although I support you completely in this view, I would however suggest that Sun coach it’s employees into endorsing open standards first, before advocating to the rest of the world (My apologies to the folks who think that this might be out of context).Point in case: Recently Sun Microsystems South Africa has been promoting a Sun Tech Day event link here. The event has enjoyed quite a bit of exposure in the media (press, radio, etc), due to the keynote being delivered by James Gosling. I earn a living from Sun Java Systems Software, and as such have received an invite via email. The link provided allows potential attendees to register on-line for the event. The only problem here is that one can only complete the registration if using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. (I tried using Java Desktop System 3 on Solaris 10, as well as Firefox on Ubuntu Linux 5.10). Given the nature of this event, and the target audience, I feel this is incredibly bad form on behalf of Sun, and I am sure I am not the only one, as many of my peers and customers are committed to an Open Standards computing environment. Granted that us South Africans are sometimes starved for celebrity presence and keynote addresses, I think it unfair to exclude Solaris and Linux users from participating in this event.

  20. The point here is that open standards allow people to get work done. Without open standards, everyone has to pony up hundreds of dollars for a poorly designed operating system. There is not enough innovation in each Windows release to substanciate the exorbant cost of their products. Their use of non-approved Microsoft specific standards which rival ANSI, IEEE, and ISO and use of Microsoft-centric technologies with lack of documentation, such as MS-DRM, makes it impossible for people to efficiently and easily access resources, such as financial aid from platforms without solutions such as MPlayer, Mozplugger, and of course architecture specific codecs in wrappers just to view a proprietary format are not avaiable.
    Say you have a Mac PPC with Tiger, SPARC Ultra 2 workstation with Solaris, ARM based embedded device, and x64 PC running Linux or BSD. There is no cross compatibility when being forced to use WMV or DRM signed videos on these platforms. Not everyone runs Windows on x86. Not to mention the headache to get things like wrappers working on even the supported platforms. This is the reason Sun chose Real. Real on UNIX platforms is based on Helix, an open-source solution which is well documented. Microsoft wants everyone to pay for viewing files that are essentially free to begin with. Trailers, webcasts, and interviews are the legal types of movies, in addition to DVD, which in it self is a legally grey matter on non Microsoft platforms (Except Mac OS X of course)

  21. Government to Microsoft: You’re a monopoly. Stop tying applications to your OS.
    Government to People: In order to receive information from us, you MUST use a Microsoft application that is distributed with their OS.
    Me: Huh?

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