GNOME, OOXML, and Half-Truths Colliding in the Night: Page 2

Posted December 18, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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Half-truth vs. Half-truth

The first step in making sense of this dispute is to realize that neither side has done much to promote its cause. On the one hand, for a large organization that includes corporate members, the GNOME Foundation has shown itself remarkably indifferent or unaware of how its involvement with OOXML would be perceived. Anyone familiar with the free software community should be able to guess how anything that seems to support Microsoft would be received, especially given the reactions to de Icaza's previous enthusiasms for interoperability with Microsoft technologies. Yet the Foundation went ahead without any announcement, nor even any effort to canvass the opinion of GNOME contributors. A first year communications major could craft a better PR strategy -- let alone tell the Foundation that damage control without backing down never works.

On the other hand, the Foundation's accusers discredit themselves with the conspiracy theories shrilly hinted at on sites like Boycott Novell and NoOOXML. Suggesting that a pro-Microsoft conspiracy exists between Novell and GNOME by cherry picking evidence is not only unsound argument, but frequently close to libel as well. While such tactics appeal to the paranoid element in the community, on the whole they can only discredit the position.

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Nor are such accusations likely to encourage the GNOME Foundation to change its actions. While people in authority dislike admitting their mistakes at the best of times, they are even less likely to change their course when being accused of treason and betrayal. Even if a conspiracy could be proved (and by "proved" I mean substantiated by evidence of an exchange of money or favors, and not just the pointing out of suggestive circumstances), it would probably be a sounder tactic not to make any accusations in public.

The truth is, the two sides are not even arguing in the same terms. The GNOME Foundation is considering the problem in technical terms. Whether or not OOXML becomes an official ISO standard, it will still become unofficial standard, simply because Microsoft Office is the main office program used on computers. That being so, why not get a jump on supporting it so that free software isn't left behind? Even if Microsoft doesn't adhere to the ISO standard itself (as seems likely, given past performance), working to get more details into the OOXML standard will still help free software developers to a degree.

By contrast, the Foundation's accusers are talking in political terms. Why, they ask, should GNOME give the appearance of support to the OOXML standard? Microsoft will only use this action as a sign of support. By assisting with the OOXML standard, the Foundation is likely to make it more likely to defeat ODF. No matter how sound supporting OOXML is as a tactic in programming, politically it is a strategic disaster.

The Foundation's accusers are also taking in emotional and ethical terms. In many circles in free software, even the appearance of working with Microsoft is the equivalent of a pact with the devil, and must be savagely denounced as if they are all members of the Spanish Inquisition -- and I'm talking Torquemada here, you understand, and not Cardinal Fang.

Others, such as Richard Stallman, argue that free software ethics demand that community members not use Microsoft formats at all. More than one blogger has suggested that no plans should be made to implement OOXML despite its seeming inevitability one way or the other. Those holding this belief even claim -- erroneously -- that KOffice's developers share it.

The trouble with these opposing perspectives is not that one is entirely right and other entirely wrong. The trouble is that they begin with imperatives that are utterly irreconcilable with those held by the other side. And what that means is that finding common ground between them is next to impossible. Both sides can only express their viewpoints over and over, growing more frustrated by the other side's apparent inability to hear.

Continued: Finding solutions

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Tags: open source, Linux, Microsoft, Gnome, Novell

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