OpenOffice.org becomes LibreOffice

by Alex Brown 28. September 2010 08:49

Or, as The Register characteristically puts it, “OpenOffice files Oracle divorce papers”.

This is a very interesting development, and the new LibreOffice project looks much more like a normal community-based open-source project than OpenOffice.org ever did, with its weird requirement that contributors surrendered their copyright to Sun (then Oracle). The purpose of that always seemed to me that it enabled Sun/Oracle, as the copyright holder, to skip around the viral nature of the GPL and strike deals with other corporations over the code base (so you won't see the all source code for IBM Lotus Symphony freely available, for example). Another consequence was that some useful work done by the Go-OOo project never found its way back into OpenOffice.org — now though we learn that “that the enhancements produced by the Go-OOo team will be merged into LibreOffice, effective immediately”. In particular I hope this will see better support for OOXML in the future – surely a necessity if LibreOffice is ever to succeed in the substitution game.

One wrinkle is the “cease fire” agreed between Microsoft and Sun (and inherited by Oracle) in which OpenOffice appeared to be granted safety from Patent action by Microsoft. Presumably this will not apply to to the new LibreOffice project …

While this development seems like it might be very good news for open source office suites, it is very unfortunate that the brand has been fragmented with yet another new name for would-be users to get their heads round.

Document Format Standards and Patents

by Alex Brown 9. March 2010 12:21

This post is part of an ongoing series. It expands on item 9 of Reforming Standardisation in JTC 1.

Background

Historically, patents have been a fraught topic with an uneasy co-existence with standards. Perhaps (within JTC 1) one of the most notorious recent examples surrounded the JPEG Standard and, in part prompted by such problems there are certainly many people of good will wanting better management of IP in standards. Judging by some recent development in document format standardisation, it seems probable that this will be the area where progress can next be made …

Most recently, the Fast Track standardisation of ISO/IEC 29500 in 2007/8 saw much interest in the IPR regime surrounding that text, with much dark suspicion surrounding Microsoft's motives. However, the big development in this space – when it came – was from an unexpected direction …

The i4i Patent

Back in the SGML days I remember touring the floor of trade shows and noticing the S4-Desktop product from Candian company Infrastructures for Information, Inc (i4i). Like a number of other products at the time (including Microsoft's own long-forgotten SGML Author for Word, or Interleaf’s BladeRunner) it attempted to make Word™ a structure-aware authoring environment, based on the (accurate) belief that while many companies wanted structured data they didn't want to have to grapple with pointy brackets.

Keen to avoid the phenomenon that Rob Weir describes whereby

There is perhaps no occasion where one can observe such profound ignorance, coupled with reckless profligacy, as when a software patent is discussed on the web.

I will avoid any punditry about the ongoing legal course of this patent. Those interested would do well to read IP lawyer Andy Updegrove's post (and follow-up) on the legalities of this matter.

On the technical merit of the standard though, there appears to me to be unanimity among disinterested experts qualified to judge. For example Jim Mason (for 22 years the chair of the ISO committee responsible for all-things-markup) commented:

[T]his technique did not originate with i4i. It was already established in other commercial products and was, in effect, standardized in ISO/IEC 8613, Office Document Architecture. ODA essentially described a binary format for word-processor document representation, which worked by pointers into a byte stream. Its original interchange format, ODIF, started as a representation of that structure, but it was extended to have an alternative SGML stream, exported by a process similar to that described in the i4i patent. So there was prior art, specifically prior art described in public standards.

This point was expanded on by markup veteran Rick Jelliffe, who concluded:

By the end of the judgment I was left thinking "what interactive XML system with any links wouldn't be included in this?" which is utterly ridiculous.

I was creating SGML systems from 1989, and the i4i patent is just as obvious then as it is now.

In a Guardian Interview i4i chairman Loudon Owen seemed to make it clear that the patent would not be licensed on a reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) basis (at least – or especially – where Microsoft are concerned):

On licensing to Microsoft, Owen sounds on the edge of anger: "No. No. This is our property. We are going to build our business. There's no right for Microsoft to use it and go forward." But i4i could license it at some humungous, eye-watering price that Microsoft might have to pay, surely? No, says Owen.

The Wider Context

As part of its amicus brief (PDF) in the Bilski case pending before the Supreme Court, IBM offered what might be termed the orthodox pro-patent position. In a section headed “Software Patent Protection Provides Significant Economic, Technological, and Societal Benefits” we thus find a footnote quoting this text:

Given the reality that software source code is human readable, and object code can be reverse engineered, it is difficult for software developers to resort to secrecy. Thus, without patent protection, the incentives to innovate in the field of software are significantly reduced. Patent protection has promoted the free sharing of source code on a patentee’s terms—which has fueled the explosive growth of open source software development.

While it is somewhat surpising to learn here of the affinity between FOSS and patents, the point is of course that the idea of patents is not wholly without foundation: that a state-sanctioned restraint of trade (for such is a patent) is justified in allowing innovators to monetize their inventions. However, increasingly when we listen to the voices of actual FOSS (and non-FOSS) people the view seems to be that any advantages are outweighed by the problems of patents. For example Mike Kay (developer of the superb Saxon family of XSLT, XQuery, and XML Schema processing products) in an open letter to his MP argues against software patenting in a piece which is well-worth reading in its entirety:

The software business does not need incentives to innovate. If you don't innovate, you die. [...] [I]n the software business, patenting of ideas benefits no-one: certainly, it does not benefit society or the economy at large, which is the only possible justification for governments to interfere with the market and grant one company a monopoly over an idea.

And, in specific reference to the i4i patent:

recently an otherwise unsuccessful company has been awarded a similar [i.e. 9-figure] sum against Microsoft, for an idea which most people in the industry considered completely trivial and obvious.

More colourfully Tim Bray lists some horror-story cases (again well worth reading) and opines that the whole patent system is "too broken to be fixed". He also addresses the question of whether patent activity benefits society, and comes down firmly against:

And here are a few words for the huge community of legal professionals who make their living pursuing patent law: You’re actively damaging society. Look in the mirror and find something better to do.

The Myth of Unencumbered Technology

Given the situation we are evidently in, it is clear that no technology is safe. The brazen claims of corporations, the lack of diligence by the US Patent Office, and the capriciousness of courts means that any technology, at any time, may suddenly become patent encumbered. Technical people - being logical and reasonable - often make the mistake of thinking the system is bound by logic and reason; they assume that because they can see 'obvious' prior art, then it will apply; however as the case of the i4i patent vividly illustrates, this is simply not so.

Turning to document format standards, we can see there most certainly are known and suspected patents in play. For example:

  • the i4i patent mentioned above (which, in his Guardian interview, the i4i Chairman refuses to rule out as applying to ODF)
  • 45 unspecified patents which Microsoft has claimed OpenOffice.org infringes, some number of which may relate to the ODF specification (and which Sun and Microsoft agreed a cease-fire over until 2014 - at least as far as Sun is/was concerned)
  • an unknown number of unspecified patents which have led IBM to include ODF under its Interoperability Specifications Pledge
  • an unknown number of unspecified patents which have led Microsoft to include OOXML under its Open Specification Promise (though presumably clear OOXML-specific patents such as US Patent 7,676,746 are in scope here)

Now, as is clear from the above, large corporations have a preferred means of neutralising their IP stake in standards: by "promises", "covenants" and the like.

The question for standardizers remains: is the current situation acceptable? and if not, what can be done to improve it?

The ISO Rules (and Are They Followed?)

Since 2007 the "big three" International SDOs (ISO, IEC and ITU-T) have operated a common patent policy predicated on the wholly reasonable premise that standards should be "accessible to everybody without undue constraints". The policy is implemented in detail by JTC 1 (which joins the forces of ISO and IEC) and which – as we know – governs the International Standards ODF and OOXML.

The Policy as implemented in the Directives has several aspects, which I would categorise as falling under the following headings …

Personal Disclosure

Anybody aware of an IPR issue has a duty to speak out:

any party participating in the work of the Organizations should, from the outset, draw their [sic] attention to any known patent or to any known pending patent application, either their own or of other organizations. (ISO Directives Part 1, Clause 3)

And indeed committee secretaries and chairs are routinely reminded by Geneva to issue a request for IPR disclosure at meetings, to jog people's memory.

Formal Disclosure in Standards

Readers of Standards can expect to have the IPR/patent situation made explicit in the text before them, and accordingly there are may textual items mandated for Standards to which patents apply. In particular it is stated, "[a] published document for which patent rights have been identified during the preparation thereof, shall include the following notice in the introduction:"

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) [and/or] International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) draws attention to the fact that it is claimed that compliance with this document may involve the use of a patent concerning (…subject matter…) given in (…subclause…).

Centralised Record-keeping

A JTC 1 "patent database" (served as a huge HTML document) is maintained in Geneva which gathers together all the patents applying to published standards, and the terms under which patent holders have agreed to make licenses available.

Clear Access Rights

Patent Holders who have signed the licensing declaration to ISO, IEC or ITU-T agree to license their patents under a clear regime: either RAND, ZRAND (i.e. RAND with a free-of-charge license), or – exceptionally – on a per-case commercial basis. Anybody accessing the patent database is able to see this and, by referring to the ISO/IEC governing documents, know what it means, not least because no deviations from Geneva's wording are permitted:

the patent holder has to provide a written statement to be filed at ITU-TSB, ITU-BR or the offices of the CEOs of ISO or IEC, respectively, using the appropriate "Patent Statement and Licensing Declaration" Form. This statement must not include additional provisions, conditions, or any other exclusion clauses in excess of what is provided for each case in the corresponding boxes of the form.

Problem Handling

And if things go wrong:

2.14.3 Should it be revealed after publication of a document that licences under patent rights, which appear to cover items included in the document, cannot be obtained under reasonable and non-discriminatory terms and conditions, the document shall be referred back to the relevant committee for further consideration.

Unfortunately, when we hold up the big two document standards of ODF and OOXML against the goals set out, we see there is work still to be done …

Moving Forward

While the "broken stack" of patents is beyond repair by any single standards body, at the very least the correct application of the rules can make the situation for users of document format standards more transparent and certain. In the interests of making progess in this direction, it seems a number of points need addressing now.

  • Users should be aware that the various covenants and promises being pointed-to by the US vendors need not be relevant to them as regards standards use. Done properly, International Standardization can give a clearer and stronger guarantee of license availability – without the caveats, interpretable points and exit strategies these vendors' documents invariably have.
  • In particular it should be of concern to NBs that there is no entry in JTC 1's patent database for OOXML (there is for DIS 29500, its precursor text, a ZRAND promise from Microsoft); there is no entry whatsoever for ODF. I would expect there to be declarations from the big US vendors who profess patent interests in these standards, and I would expect this to be addressed as a matter of urgency (perhaps in parallel with the publication of these standards' forthcoming amendments)
  • In the case of the i4i patent, one implementer has already commented that implementing CustomXML in its entirety may run the risk of infringement (and this is probably, after all, why Microsoft patched Word in the field to remove some aspects of its CustomXML support). OOXML needs to be referred back to its committee (this may be JTC 1, not SC 34) for a decision on what happens next. My personal guess is that CustomXML will be left in OOXML Transitional (patent-encumbrance will be just one more of the many warning stickers on this best-avoided variant), and modified in, or removed from, OOXML Strict
  • When declaring their patents to JTC 1, patent holders are given an option whether to make a general declaration about the patents that apply to a standard, or to make a particular declaration about each and every itemized patent which applies. I believe NBs should be insisting that patent holder enumerate precisely the patents they hold which they claim apply to ODF or OOXML, as this will give greater transparency about what is (or is not) covered and prevent the vague threat ("there may be patents but we're not saying what") which seems to apply at the moment.

There is obviously much to do, and I am hoping that at the forthcoming SC 34 meetings in Stockholm this work can begin. Certainly, anybody reading this blog post now knows there are outstanding IPR issues which we as standardizers have a duty to raise …

Notes on Document Conformance and Portability #3

by Alex Brown 10. May 2009 13:20

Now that the furore about Microsoft’s implementation of ODF spreadsheet formulas in Office SP2 has died down a little, it is perhaps worth taking a little time to have a calm look at some of the issues involved.

Clearly, this is an area where strong commercial interests are in play, not to mention an element of sometimes irrational zeal from those who consider themselves pro or anti (mostly anti) Microsoft.

One question is whether Microsoft did “The Right Thing” by users in choosing to implement formulas the way they did. This is certainly a fair question and one over which we can expect there to be some argument.

The fact is that Microsoft’s implementation decision means that, on the face of it, they have produced an implementation of ODF which does not interoperate with other available implementations. Thus IBM blogger Rob Weir can produce a simple (possibly simplistic) spreadsheet, “Maya’s Wedding Planner” and used it to illustrate, with helpful red boxes for the slow-witted, that Microsoft’s implementation is a “FAIL” attributable to “malice or incompetence”. For good measure he also takes a side-swipe at Sun for their non-interoperable implementation. In this view, interoperability aligning with IBM’s Symphony implementation is – unsurprisingly – presented as optimal (in fact, you can hear the sales pitch from IBM now: “well, Mr government procurement officer, looks like Sun and MS are not interoperable, you won’t want these other small-fry implementations, and Google’s web-based approach isn’t suitable – so looks like Symphony is the only choice …”)

Microsoft have argued back, of course, most strikingly in Doug Mahugh’s 1 + 2 = 1? blog posting, which appears to present some real problems with basic spreadsheet interoperability among ODF products using undocumented extensions. The MS argument is that practical ODF interoperability is a myth anyway, and so supporting it meaningfully is not possible (in fact, you can hear the sales pitch from MS now: “well, Mr government procurement officer, looks like ODF is dangerously non-interoperable: here, let me show you how IBM and Sun can’t even agree on basic features; but look, we’ve implemented ISO standard formulas, so we alone avoid that – and you can assess whether we’re doing what we claim – looks like MS Office is the only choice …”)

Personally, I think MS have been disappointingly petty in abandoning the “convention” that the other suites more or less use. I accept that these ODF implementations have limited interoperability and are unsafe for any mission-critical data, but for the benefit of the “Maya’s Wedding Planner” type of scenario, where ODF implementations can actually cut it, I think MS should have included this legacy support as an option, even if they did have to qualify that support with warning dialogs about data loss and interoperability issues.

But - vendors are vendors; it is their very purpose to compete in order to maximise their long-term profits. Users don’t always benefit from this. We really shouldn’t be surprised that we have IBM, Sun and Microsoft in disagreement at this point.

What we should be surprised about is how this interoperability fiasco has been allowed to happen within the context of a standard. To borrow Rick Jelliffe’s colourfully reported words, the whole purpose of shoving an international standard up a vendor’s backside it to get them to behave better in the interests of the users. What has gone wrong here is in the nature of the standard itself. ODF offers an extremely weak promise of interoperability, and the omission of a spreadsheet formula specification in ODF 1.1 is merely one of the more glaring facets of this problem. As XML guru James Clark wrote in 2005:

I really hope I'm missing something, because, frankly, I'm speechless. You cannot be serious. You have virtually zero interoperability for spreadsheet documents.

To put this spec out as is would be a bit like putting out the XSLT spec without doing the XPath spec. How useful would that be?

It is essential that in all contexts that allow expressions the spec precisely define the syntax and semantics of the allowed expressions.

These words were prophetic, for now we do indeed face a present zero interoperability reality.

The good news is that work is underway to fix this problem: ODF 1.2 promises, when it eventually appears, to specify formulas using the new OpenFormula specification. When that is published vendors will cease to have an excuse to create non-interoperable implementations, at least in this area.

Is SP2 conformant?

Whether Microsoft’s approach to ODF was the wisest is something over which people may disagree in good faith. Whether their approach conforms to ODF should be a neutral fact we can determine with certainty.

In a follow-up posting to his initial blast, Rob Weir sets out to show that Microsoft’s approach is non-conformant, subsequent to his previous statement that “SP2's implementation of ODF spreadsheets does not, in fact, conform to the requirements of the ODF standard”. After quoting a few selected extracts from the standard, a list is presented showing how various implementations represent a formula:

  • Symphony 1.3: =[.E12]+[.C13]-[.D13]
  • Microsoft/CleverAge 3.0: =[.E12]+[.C13]-[.D13]
  • KSpread 1.6.3: =[.E12]+[.C13]-[.D13]
  • Google Spreadsheets: =[.E12]+[.C13]-[.D13]
  • OpenOffice 3.01: =[.E12]+[.C13]-[.D13]
  • Sun Plugin 3.0: [.E12]+[.C13]-[.D13]
  • Excel 2007 SP2: =E12+C13-D13

Rob writes, “I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which one of these seven is wrong and does not conform to the ODF 1.1 standard.”

Again, this is clearly aimed at the slow witted. One can imagine even the most hesitant pupil raising their hand, “please Mr Weir, is it Excel 2007 SP2?” Rob however, is too smart to avoid answering the question himself, and anybody who knows anything of ODF will know that, in fact, this is a tricky question.

Accordingly, Dennis Hamilton (ODF TC member and secretary of the ODF Interoperability and Conformance TC) soon chipped in among the blog comments to point out that ODF’s description of formulas is governed by the word “Typically”, rendering it arguably just a guideline. And, as I pointed out in my last post, it is certainly possible to read ODF as a whole as nothing more than a guideline.

(I am glad to be able to report that the word “typically” has been stripped from the draft of ODF 1.2, indicating its existence was problematic.)

Curious readers might like to look for themselves at the (normative) schema for further guidance. Here, we find the formal schema definition for formulas, with a telling comment:

<define name="formula">
  <!-- A formula should start with a namespace prefix, -->
  <!-- but has no restrictions-->
  <data type="string"/>
</define>

Which is yet another confirmation that there are no certain rules about formulas in ODF.

So I believe Rob’s statement that “SP2's implementation of ODF spreadsheets does not, in fact, conform to the requirements of the ODF standard” is mistaken on this point. This might be his personal interpretation of the standard, but it is based on an ingenious reading (argued around the meaning of comma placement, and privileging certain statements over other), and should certainly give no grounds for complacency about the sufficiency of the ODF specification.

As an ODF supporter I am keen to see defects, such as conformance loopholes, fixed in the next published ODF standard. I urge all other true supporters to read the drafts and give feedback to make ODF better for the benefit of everyone, next time around.

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Note that everyone directly involved in the development of ISO standards is a volunteer or funded by outside sponsors. The editors, technical experts, etc., get none of this money. Of course, we must also consider the considerable expense of maintaining offices and executive staff in Geneva. Individual National Bodies are also permitted to sell ISO standards and this money is used to fund their own national standards activities, e.g., pay for offices and executive staff in their capital. But none of this money seems to flow down to the people who makes the standards.

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