Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Roy vs Jeff : A battle over OOXML

Alright, so the live podcast between Jeff Waugh of the GNOME Foundation and Roy Schestowitz of Boycott Novell

wasn’t actually as confrontational as the title of this post might imply. Still, it made Mr. Schestowitz look only slightly less foolish than I’d already believed him to be.

I’m just going to get the reasons that I think that Roy is a lunatic out of the way first.

  1. Though there are two editors on Boycott Novell, I’ve never seen anything posted by Mr. Coyle.
  2. The site is called Boycott Novell, a company that has done far more good for the Linux community than harm. To be fair to Mr. Schestowitz, he claims that the name was Shane Coyle’s decision, not his own.
  3. He posts at least a half dozen ‘stories’ a day. These stories are almost always filled with enormous amounts of paranoia.

For his credit, dubious as this may seem, it became clear over the course of the interview, that Mr. Schestowitz is a true Free Software fanatic, outclassed by only a very small handful of people more devoted to free software than he is. And, in regards to the OOXML issue that was the topic of the podcast, his main beefs with the format are similar to my own. It’s a lousy format, not suitable for use internationally, and the ECMA standard is not what Microsoft released in Office 2007. Mr. Schestowitz is also incredibly concerned with the software patents that encumber OOXML and the .NET platform. Currently, Microsoft has deals with Novell that say it won’t enforce those patents (on Moonlight and Mono at least), but software patents are still a cause for worry, especially where Microsoft is concerned with it’s poor track record.

In the end, Jeff Waugh sounded far more articulate, and he demonstrated that at the core of their beliefs, both Waugh and Schestowitz stand for the same things. Support for OOXML is merely a means to an end for the GNOME Foundation. Whether we like it or not, most of the developed world uses Microsoft products, from Windows to Office. The best way to coax Windows users into switching to Linux is to show them how painless it can be. OOXML support is vital for that. As Waugh points out, the figures of how many OOXML and ODF exist in the wild aren’t very useful, as the vast majority of created documents are never published to the wild.

I particularly liked Mr. Waugh’s reason for why the GNOME Foundation had become active in the OOXML ISO Standardization process. As I’ve blogged about before, OOXML is not very far removed from the binary formats the Microsoft has used in past versions of Office. By getting as much information as we can from Microsoft about OOXML, we’ll be in a better position to edit and save as prior Microsoft formats. Also, Open Office and gnumeric are only planning to open, not save, OOXML documents.

Ultimately, this interview showed the battle was one of pragmatism vs. fundamentalism. I completely believe in the fundamentals of free software. Still, sometimes, we need to bother ourselves with less clean technologies in order to accomplish our goals. Even Richard Stallman recognizes this, as he did when he spent all those years in the early days of GNU reimplementing UNIX tools, to make sure his versions were free of the copyright and licensing issues that plagued even the BSD folks. We need to convince people to use Free Software, by making it better than the commercial alternatives, not by fighting a holy war about software wanting or needing to be free.

I am a believer in the tenets of Free Software, but we need to be realistic, and we need to coexist in the heart of the software world in order to win this war. We lack the resources to battle them head on, we must win our converts where we can by being better and faster and more reliable. People like Stallman and Schestowitz, with their powerful beliefs, ignoring any technical acumen they might possess, hurt our cause far more than they realize every time they speak out against the evils they perceive. A subversive war is won by working with the enemy closely enough to debase them, but not so closely you become them. It’s our best chance to win, and realize the free software dream.