Via slashdot, a French consumer group is suing HP for bundling Windows with its PCs. An HP lawyer defended the company:
The company is not in violation of the law because the OS is an integral part of the PC, Spitzmuller said.
“The PC without an OS is not a product because it doesn’t work,” Spitzmuller said. “We believe the market is for products that work.”
In related news, Apple announced that from now on it will bundle the collected works of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton with every iPod it sells. “An iPod without music is not a product because it doesn’t work,” Steve Jobs said. “We believe the market is for products that work.”
Toshiba announced that it will only sell its DVD players along with every Kevin Bacon movie ever. “A DVD player without a DVD is not a product because it doesn’t work,” a Toshiba representative said…
You get the idea.
Its one thing for Microsoft to try to hold on to its monopoly position, but for its channel partners to try to defend their acquiescence to MS’s monopoly power with such fatuous remarks is embarrassiing.
Georg Greve of the FSF Europe has an article posted on Groklaw criticizing the Novell agreement to work with Microsoft on improving conversion between ODF and OpenXML. (He also provides a follow up to various comments posted to Groklaw.)
My concern with his discussion is the same I have with much of the free software agenda: he is expecting open source users to accomplish via individual actions what can only be accomplished via political action. This puts the burden on those least able to effect any sea change, while dodging the hard work of lobbying to enact legislation.
I have been living inbetween the Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice.org battle lines for several years now. As a consultant to big business and big government, I don’t have the luxury of ideological purity. When we are conducting an open source assessment and strategy, it’s understood that we will provide the client a deliverable in ODF. To do anything else would be undercutting our whole message.
But when we are conducting an identity management or resource management engagement, the client may not have bought into open source at all, and doesn’t really care about anything other than being able to read, distribute and re-use our deliverables. We can provide them a pdf document from OpenOffice, but clients typically want to take our slide deck and repurpose it for their own use. It is in our interest that they be able to do so, since we want them to present our recommendations to their executives to get approval to move forward. Regrettably, 9 times out of 10 they want the deliverable in MS Office format. We have little ability and even less incentive to insist otherwise, since after all, they are the customer.
This presents a dilemma. If we know we are going to have to provide a deliverable in MS Office format, and since the conversion from OpenOffice to MS Office isn’t always perfect, do we develop the document in OpenOffice and clean up the conversion, or do we develop it in MS Office (running in VMWare or WINE) to start with? I take the first route, but this imposes a cost, especially if I have to repeatedly revise the deliverable.
This is the real world I live in. Greve isn’t providing me with any practical solutions. For example:
As several people have pointed out, constructively supporting the use, spread, adoption and legislation for truly Open Standards, such as the Open Document Format (ODF), is one of the most useful things people can do. This includes using ODF yourself for cooperating online with others, as this LWN.net comment proposes.
Funny enough, all of this brings to mind RMS’ essay We Can Put an End to Word Attachments of 2002, only that it would need updating to recommend the Open Document Format, boiling down to: I am very sorry, but I could not read your attachment because it was saved in a format that my office could not read. Could you please resend the document in the universal document format “Open Document Format” (ODF), the international ISO standard for document exchange?
Naturally the message should be adapted to the situation, recipient and context in order to have the right tone. If people feel attacked or criticised for having used the “wrong” format, such reminders may end up being counterproductive. But discarding the possibility of changing social habits is no less counterproductive, and ignores evidence to the contrary: Just ask all the people who are now sorting their garbage for recycling and compare that to the position they took 30 years ago.
I’m sorry, but this is terrible advice. It won’t work in the business world, and especially not when dealing with customers. It is simply preposterous to expect an MS Office user in corporate America to change their office software because I refuse to read their document.
However, Greve’s comment that we should support legislation is right on target. This is an issue that can only be pursued politically. I think the argument is best made by a commenter quoted by Greve:
I don’t, however, think that it’s inappropriate to ask a vendor to change their software to comply with a standard. Do we seriously give MS Office the standing of a national language? The standing of English, or French, or Spanish, or Chinese, or Japanese? Do we really have no right, in the standards process, to ask Microsoft to change their software? Well, not so much change their software, but to implement the standard the other way around – for MS Office to implement the standard, not for the standard to implement MS Office, which is obviously why it’s 4000+ pages, and getting bigger.
Legislation needs to catch up with the technology. A huge percentage of the world’s artifacts are contained in office documents. Who is going to define this lingua franca, Microsoft or a global standards body?
Greve is pessimistic on this front:
The criteria of what constitutes an Open Standard are under permanent debate in various regions of the world and generally conclude at a set of principles that should be adhered to, but mostly without compliance checking.
The OpenXML specification was written to fulfill these criteria in theory, but in reality, will it prevent Open Standards? If so, it will undermine the expressed will of the political debate, which was intended to serve interoperability.
But understanding this and reaching a correct conclusion requires some grasp of technology, and the apparent strategy behind OpenXML obviously counts on the fact that politicians either are isolated from technology or not interested in the technological background and will apply a “the truth must be somewhere in the middle” approach instead of considering the technical facts.
The result of this then is the “mistaken salomonian solution” of accepting both ODF and OpenXML as sufficiently Open Standards, which is no solution, at all.
However, Greve has provided all of the compelling arguments why the salomonian solution (or is it Solomonian?) is unacceptable. We need to make this argument with our legislatures, not give in to defeat out of a belief that legislators won’t understand technical issues.
But in the meantime, here in the real world, I only ask for one thing: an incrementally better conversion between OpenOffice and MS Office so I can continue to use OpenOffice while giving clients what they ask for. OpenOffice doesn’t have to implement all 6,000 pages of the OpenXML standard. It just has to improve its existing conversion to make it “good enough”. Then let standards legislation and the vastly superior economics of OpenOffice do the rest.
It’s been almost a month since my employer signed the controversial deal with Microsoft, and according to Bruce Perens, now “Novell is the new SCO“. I initially resisted taking a strong stand one way or the other, but I’ve had some time to mull this over and read all the various reactions, so now I will. (As always, I speak for myself, not for Novell.)
This is a good deal for the OSS community, for Novell, and especially for enterprise IT customers. The FSF and the rest of the open source community needs to loosen up, or they will actively harm the future of Linux.
Let’s look at the various consitituencies in this debate. First, the free software movement, led by the Free Software Foundation, is a distinct constituency within the broader OSS community. These are the “free as in freedom” folks who advocate for an end to software patents, and in the meantime, against any use of software patents by software companies to achieve a privileged position in the marketplace.
Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens and Eben Moglen are lawyers, not developers or business people, and they have set out to change the world, and admirably so. I think their goal is laudable, but let’s be clear – it is a political goal, not a technical nor business goal. Their efforts don’t directly affect the actual open source code itself, and don’t directly help increase the adoption of Linux over Windows.
The FSF’s efforts have greatly assisted the people who write open source code and the people who are trying to increase adoption of Linux over Windows. But their efforts are not always aligned with the rest of the OSS community. Case in point: GPLv3. The drafting of the new version of the GPL has not been without its share of disagreements, and Linus Torvalds is not planning to use the GPLv3 for the Linux kernel. The goal of GPLv3 has been to further the FSF’s political agenda, not to improve open source code or widen adoption of open source. The second case in point, of course, is the Novell/MS deal. The free software folks aren’t interested in improving interoperability between Linux and Windows or increasing adoption of Linux by corporate IT if it comes at the expense of their political agenda.
What about the developers themselves? Many strongly identify with the FSF’s goals, but not all. I think the reason Nat Friedman and Miguel de Icaza were surprised by the negative reaction to the deal is because, for them, it’s about the code, not about freeing the world from the evil of software IP protections. This is a great opportunity for the open source developers to get Microsoft to open up a small window (no pun intended) into their proprietary software. Everything developed under this deal will be open-sourced, so those who care about the quality of open source code, and specifically how it interoperates with MS software, should be happy. After all, compromises between the open source community and patent holders have been going on for a long time. Many distributions include proprietary hardware drivers, and for good reason – it makes the software more useful!
But there is another constituency that seems to have no voice in this debate: the enterprise IT customers. Corporate and government IT shops are making decisions on a daily basis whether to implement Linux or Windows, and far too many of them are adopting Windows. They don’t care about free-as-in-freedom. They would like free-as-in-beer, but are more concerned about quality, reliability, security and manageability. They have to justify their decisions to their managers and executives who only care about the success of their business or agency. Most don’t believe they would ever be sued by Microsoft, but are very interested to know that Microsoft has, in effect, blessed Linux as an enterprise-class solution. For them, this isn’t political, it isn’t technical, it’s business. And this deal makes a lot of business sense to an enterprise customer.
Unfortunately, the open source community has a real blind spot when it comes to the needs of enterprise customers. Most developers conflate “the community” and “the users”, and for understandable reasons. Open source developers have long developed software for themselves. Open source email clients have had very different functionality than MS Outlook, because open source mail list posters don’t do top-posting, don’t have to do busy searches against calendars, and don’t do workflow. In spite of the millions of dollars spent by enterprise IT customers on groupware, one open source developer went so far as to suggest that, instead of developing open source groupware for business customers, the Hula Project should develop software to help college students get laid.
So here is the risk to open source software: that it becomes “ghettoized”, restricted to free software absolutists and hackers developing software only they themselves need. Enterprise IT could proceed merrily along its way adopting the latest Windows release and SAP service pack just fine. This would be a real shame, a waste of effort and money on poorer quality software, but businesses and governments would cope. But a huge opportunity to adopt open source would be lost – the opportunity to adopt a better way of developing and distributing enterprise software.
This is not to say that the Novell/MS deal is the linchpin that would bring this all about, but it is a small but necessary step forward down this path. If the free software folks and the open source hackers can’t accommodate this small step, then they won’t be flexible enough to meet the needs of the enterprise market over the long haul. Which would be a tragedy.
Updated 12/2/06 – My mistake — Richard Stallman isn’t a lawyer, and in fact is the developer of much of GNU.