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OOXML/ODF: Just One Battlefield in a Much Bigger War

Feb 22, 2008, 23:30 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Once in a while, a confluence of random events (or not so random, depending on your belief system) can create the ideal aha! moment. The moment of clarity when all the pieces just fall into place and you realize "that's what's going on!"

I believe I have had one of those moments. And if this thought has any basis in reality, it could mean that everything we have seen in IT is about to make a huge change.

It started earlier this month, when a good friend of mine in the open source community called to chat about the state of the world. During the course of the conversation, he was pretty excited about the advent of KDE 4, and pointed out some technological features of that desktop environment that could foster a new path for cross-platform application development. Some of the thoughts we discussed showed up in my Feb. 8 Editor's Note.

In parallel to this discussion, recently I have had an opportunity to mess around with SharePoint. The experience, like using a lot of Microsoft products, was a mixture of good and bad. Features like version control and Office integration worked flawlessly (for me), but I was not too impressed with the page publishing features, and the wiki system was downright scary.

As I was poking around with this SharePoint system (a VM loaned to me by another friend who's an SharePoint MVP) over the last couple of weeks, the ongoing debate about the Office Open XML (OOXML) format was coming out of hibernation as the ballot resolution meeting to debate the format's fate as an International Standards Organization (ISO) standard starts next Monday in Geneva. As the BRM date approaches, the rhetoric on both sides of the OOXML argument has gotten louder, and each side has accused the other of gaming the ISO system.

I don't know if IBM is playing footloose and fancy free with the ISO process. I know a lot of my colleagues in the open source community deny that such a thing might ever happen. IBM is the guy in the white hat, right? But if it were to ever come out that IBM was doing some covert lobbying on the side, it would not surprise me one bit. Nor am I any longer surprised why Redmond is being so desperate to get the OOXML made an ISO standard.

The aha! moment, you see, made it clear to me just how much is at stake. If the OOXML format in its current form cannot get made into a true ISO standard, it could lock Microsoft out of any future plays in what could be the biggest IT revolution to date.

Here are the pieces of the puzzle that fit together for me:

Piece #1: During the conversation in early February, my open source friend put forth this hypothesis: what if cloud computing can really take off and perform to its fullest potential? Imagine, he put to me, a device that runs everything--operating system, applications, data--all from the cloud.

Piece #2: Playing around with SharePoint and all of the vast amount of metadata it could access, I started thinking about the format that must to be used to make all of this work.

Piece #3: I started Googling about "cloud" and "OOXML."

And then it all started making sense. And not just Microsoft's recent OOXML push. This could explain a lot about the corporate movings and shakings in the Linux and open source world. Perhaps all the way back to IBM's entry into Linux back in 2000. Back in October of 2007, Robert Cringely noted something very curious going on at Google.

It seems that he noted that Google was putting a lot of code extensions into the MySQL database product. This showed up when MySQL had laid out its development roadmap back in the fall. He made mention of it because, even though Google is MySQL's largest customer, they'd never contributed code on such a scale before.

The extensions, Cringely went on to explain, were specifically designed to assist Google Apps to run more efficiently:

"While Google has long been able to mess with the MySQL code in ITS machines, it hasn't been able to mess with the code in YOUR machine and now it wants to do exactly that. The reason it will take so long to roll out MySQL 6.1 is that Google will only deliver its MySQL extensions for Linux, leaving MySQL AB the job of porting that code to the 15 other operating systems they support. That's what will take until early 2009."

At the same time, he noted, Google was starting to promote, with IBM... you guessed it. Cloud computing.

Cloud computing, it should be noted, is basically the new buzzword for what used to be called utility computing, which in turn used to be called grid computing. The idea of cloud computing is that you can run any application on a remote machine or machines and treat it as if it were installed locally. This differs from grid computing, which really had to have apps optimized for the grid to really work, and utility computing, which also has apps installed remotely, but without as much customization. Cloud computing, at its fullest potential, means you get to use any application as if it were installed locally--except that it's really hosted on a ridiculously fast server farm--"the cloud"--somewhere.

For example, Amazon Web Services, a division of the book/toys/everything seller that was started in 2002, just launched its SimpleDB service in December, after having already launched its Amazon Simple Storage Service, and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud products. These three apps (with more I am sure, to come) can be run through a web interface and deliver huge computing power to individuals and small companies on an as-needed basis. That SimpleDB database's description even highlights the key thing the underlies all of the cloud computing concept: "Amazon SimpleDB is a web service for running queries on structured data in real time."

"Structured data." And what's a good way to contain such data? In well-built structured data file format of course. Like, for instance, the Open Document Format (ODF). And who has a vested interest in ODF? IBM certainly does. And so does Sun. And these two companies, along with Google, Microsoft, and I'm sure many others, realize that if cloud computing does indeed take off, then it will be the file format that makes the whole thing work.

Which is why Microsoft feels it must get their format standardized. Even with tactics that ironically have started to attract the attention of the EU again. How else can they get a piece of the cloud pie?

After all, they don't make hardware (but IBM and Sun do), and their operating system on the server side is being matched and surpassed by a host of free operating systems (Linux, BSD, Solaris...) They don't own the pipes (governments and telecom companies do) and they don't have a foothold in the wireless spectrum (though, hey, Google will soon). They don't have a portal with a huge amount of popularity (though a successful Yahoo! acquisition would solve that problem--something another analyst noted). And on the database side? Well, let's see, wasn't there a certain open source database company that was recently bought by Sun for $1 billion? I think I read that somewhere.

And if--if--cloud computing advances to the point where we do indeed use devices that connect to the cloud with virtually no on-board software, Microsoft will be shut out of that part of the cloud, too. Their embedded OS has not demonstrated a real market strength or scalability. But guess which OS is rocking and rolling on embedded hardware? Rhymes with Finux.

This means, as far as I can see, that Microsoft has few options left wide open to it. Competitors and competing technology have closed a lot of doors on the path to cloud computing success. It can still shove its way through those doors, but that's a much more difficult proposition than getting a solid position in one part of the cloud concept before anyone else does. To use another analogy, it's like a game of musical chairs, with the ISO standard chair being the last empty chair left--and a lot of companies trying to beat Microsoft to it.

When I Googled all of this, it became clear to me that I was certainly not the first to think of this notion of the cloud as the ultimate end goal. Other pundits have also speculated that the Sun/MySQL purchase was part of a Sun strategy to maintain a place at the cloud table, along with Google. So I cannot take credit for original thinking here.

Reading though all the material about IBM's very big push for cloud computing (and grid and utility computing before that), I did get to pondering: what if IBM's investment in Linux back in 2000 had this kind of scenario in mind? A free operating system with tremendous growth, excelled scalability (up and down)--it even came with a network-transparent GUI. Perfect for a long-term plan to get into grid/utility/cloud computing. I have always wondered why IBM didn't put just a little effort into desktop Linux development. Now, I'm not wondering so much.

It would certainly lend credence to why IBM has such a vested interest in seeing OOXML fail. A chance to shut their old enemy Microsoft out of what could be the next step in IT infrastructure? Oh, hardly a tear would be shed in Armonk, I'm sure, on that day.

If OOXML does not become an ISO standard, Microsoft would lose the format war for the cloud, and any advantages SharePoint might have in the face of similar systems like Alfresco's. There would be no reason for vendors to be forced deal with Windows or WinCE on the device end of the cloud, either.

The question is, if this mass of theory has some truth behind it, where does this leave Linux?

Right now, with current security and bandwidth limitations, Linux is still in the same shape it's always been... great on the server, getting better on the desktop. It's super powers on the server make it a perfect candidate for the servers used in today's cloud computing environment.

In a future world of all-cloud devices, the notion of a desktop Linux, like the notion of a desktop Windows or OS X machine, would be very different. Certainly of these three operating systems, Linux has the best reputation and capability for going small and fast.

Even if this sci-fi-sounding world does not come to be, I am increasingly convinced that the next big new market in IT is the cloud sector--a sector for which Linux (and ODF) is already well-suited.