GNOME, OOXML, and Half-Truths Colliding in the Night

To suggest that the GNOME Foundation become more responsive to the community or that its accusers become more responsible may assume an impossible nobility of spirit all around.


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Posted December 18, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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The average user probably hasn't even heard of Open Document Format (ODF) or Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML). But to factions in the free software community, these formats for common office files such as text documents and spreadsheets are the poles on which a violent controversy centers. With both formats candidates for being the ISO standard that becomes the norm for interoperability between office suites, emotions were already running high.

However, in the last six weeks, this issue has been sidetracked by a debate about whether the GNOME Foundation, which oversees development of the popular desktop, has betrayed or assisted the community by being involved with the development of OOXML at all.

The tragedy of this controversy is not just that it is divisive, but that each side has a point. Yet the arguments are based on such utterly different principles that the two sides have almost no chance of finding common ground. In fact, the argument has become so polarized that last week Sam Varghese characterized my suggestion that both sides believed that they were acting for the good of the community as an "insane claim."

Nor do any of the principals seem interested in ending the division. I think one could be found, if both sides could back down a bit, but even to make this suggestion is to take flack from both sides.

Discuss this article in the Datamation discussion forumComment on "GNOME and OOXML"

How it started

The history of the conflict is convoluted and full of noise. However, here is a summary, presented as neutrally as possible.

GNU/Linux Columns
Richard Stallman and the Connotations of Language

Free Software Foundation's "High Priority" List

Open Source Pros Pick their Favorite Projects

Interview With Pamela Jones

FREE Tech Newsletters

Developed with considerable input from the free software community, Open Document Format became an ISO/IEC standard in 2006. Microsoft declined to participate in the drafting of the ODF standard, preferring to promote its own OOXML standard instead. Both the opportunism of this move and the incompleteness of the standard, which, contradicting the word "open" in its name, often refers to proprietary structures in Microsoft Office Documents, have been widely criticized. So, too, have Microsoft's lobbying and politicing among national standards committees. OOXML failed to become an ISO standard in the vote in September 2007, and has currently gone back to the EMCA committee for redrafting. In February 2008, the revised standard is scheduled to be voted on again.

This already tense situation is made even tenser by the fact that Miguel de Icaza, the founder of GNOME and currently a Novell employee, described OOXML as a "superb standard" that had been the subject of a propaganda campaign. Given that Novell was the first free software company to sign a cooperative pact with Microsoft and de Icaza himself has been criticized for the development of Microsoft-compatible projects such as Mono and Silverlight, this comment was seen by some as a betrayal of the community. It also seems to have awoken fears that the sentiment was shared by the GNOME Foundation, although de Icaza is not a board member of the Foundation.

These fears were exacerbated in November with the discovery that the GNOME Foundation had agreed to sponsor Jody Goldberg, the lead maintainer on the Gnumeric spreadsheet, so he could continue to sit on the EMCA committee revising OOXML. According to Goldberg, his interest was in learning more about OOXML so that he and other free software developers could support it. However, the fact that Goldberg had worked for Novell as recently as June 2007, coupled with a few of his remarks taken out of their technical context, were enough for many to see a pro-Microsoft conspiracy to promote OOXML at the expense of ODF.

On November 23, GNOME issued a statement that tried to clarify its position. However, the statement was equivocal enough that the debate has continued on mailing lists and web sites ever since.

Continued: Half-truth vs. Half-truth

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

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