Microsoft

Wrong model for people to become rich

I headed the team that documented a seminar intended for the Catholic Bishops this January. One of my teammates submitted his documentation of a session and I was surprised at the thought he had captured from a Bishop, thus:

Let us look at what Bill Gates has done. He has created wealth for a lot of people across the globe because he focused on education or information technology. If we do what Bill Gates has done, we can also become a rich people.

I’m afraid that the Bishop is misinformed. Perhaps, he just blindly listened to the good side of Gates, not knowing the bad one. He, the Bishop, did not seem to know that Gates has become rich from out of his software monopoly, by killing other software competitors and demonizing free and open source software alternatives.

I even suspect that Gates’ being magnanimous nowadays, specifically by giving huge donations via the Gates Foundation in poor countries and research and development, is a function of channeling his massive wealth for a good cause (read: a good marketing spiel for Microsoft). This is actually not a phenomenon. Foundations are built by corporations who are either guilty for amassing wealth or pressured by tax laws. As a result, Foundations serve two functions: a) give to the needy and b) promote their products.

In other words, I disagree with the Bishop for choosing Gates as the model for Filipino people to become rich. The Holy Bible consistently marries becoming rich to honor. I’m afraid Gates must be careful in maintaining the latter, if he has that. The Bible says of the rich of the rich: “He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again: God shall cast them out of his belly. ” (Job 20:15).

Staving off business interests and restrictions from universal access to digitized books

It caught me by surprise that International Herald Tribune’s (IHT) online news story about several research libraries defying Google’s and Microsoft’s books digitization schemes had just been retracted. The story’s link is supposed to be this http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/10/19/business/19library.php. See for yourself. I guess that Google and/or Microsoft put a lot of pressure on IHT to hide the story from public access.

If I’m not mistaken, it was about two years ago that both giants (with Google being first in 2004) started to launch books digitization projects for the purpose of providing researchers worldwide online access to old books that reside in the public libraries. They extended the power of the Internet from merely providing search engines for web sites’ contents.

Google and Microsoft have succeeded but only to some extent. For not all research libraries agree to their terms. The giants are now facing an uphill battle versus an alliance that believes that access to content should be insulated from business interests and restrictions. That alliance is Open Content Alliance (OCA). The OCA offers the same services as Google and Microsoft, but differs in terms of levels of access to the content. While respecting copyrights, the OCA wants the broadest number of Internet users have free access to digitized books irregardless of which search engines are used. Thus far, the alliance is focused on more than 80 libraries and research institutions worldwide contributing out-of-copyright works.

Google had wanted the US Library of Congress to be its first major partner in books digitization. But the latter had decided to deal on a more open approach, thus, choosing OCA instead for a project that will digitize the Library’s public domain works including “brittle” books and US history volumes. Doron Weber, Program Directof of Sloan Foundation that granted 2 million dollars to Library of Congress for such project, said: “God bless Google and Microsoft, and they’ll do what they do. But we need to do the right thing, because we’re in the privileged position of thinking about what’s good for the country and society over the long-term.”

In the homefront, Wikipilipinas’s founder, Gus Vibal, wants to digitize Filipino works with the end in view of preserving them for future use. He also wants universal access to the digitized versions. But it is not yet clear whether he’s thinking along the lines of Google and Microsoft or OCA, even though Vibal once said that he’s mulling over eventually monetizing visits to the nascent online Philippine knowledge portal.

Microsoft best campaigner against its own

The Microsoft Corporation is the runaway winner of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure’s (FFII) award this year: “Best Campaigner against OOXML Standardization“. As soon as I read the news, I thought that FFII did it to make fun of Microsoft. On a serious note, I thought that FFII could not probably find a really worthy entity to win the prize.

OK, I’m giving it to FFII. Its decision to “praise” Microsoft for its meritorious efforts to kill its own campaign in favor of the ISO-certified open document standards is but an effective propaganda. And Microsoft people must be reeling in seeing red. I wonder how it will react without any trace of ire or touchiness (pagka-pikon). The challenge is how it would turn the table around in favor of proprietary “standards”. Or, Microsoft will just not give a hoot.

I think Microsoft must as well be commended and therefore be given an award for its promoting free and open source software (FOSS), what with a number of failed and abominable attempts it has undertaken to perpetuate its realm in the software world. The FSF, DefectiveByDesign.org, and Open Source Initiative must take the cue from FFII then.

Apple watch out.

Proposed FOSS Bill in a stiff battle: What’s to be done?

Amidst yesterday’s mass protests in Burma and Philippine Senate’s grilling of COMELEC Chair Abalos and former NEDA chief Neri about the NBN/ZTE controversy, a roundtable discussion about Bayan Muna’s proposed FOSS Act Bill took place in UP’s College of Law. And it’s hard to tell whether the bill warrants the policymakers’ attention, at least at this point in time.

I came to the forum impressed. Nuh, it had no relation to the forum but was about the Malcolm building, which gave me the eerie feeling of being in a maze, much less a haunted place. High ceilings, dim corners, almost no signages anywhere, and hidden doors. I was also impressed by the setup of the Sta. Ana Room (is it UP Law’s typical classroom setup?) with its rising rows of seats.

The forum was well-attended. It was SRO even. Here’s the cheat sheet: A throng of students of Prof. JJ Dissini (and of Prof. Dizon, too?) were there, one of whom told my seat mate that their attendance in there was not mandatory but ‘highly encouraged.’ The students were scattered around the place, some of whom maximized the time for other concerns. Perhaps they were dividing attention to the forum’s topic and their reviewing for their finals next month?

Now, to the topic: Mandating the use of free and open source software (FOSS) in government agencies and encouraging private and public sectors to use FOSS. Rep. Ted Casiño graced the forum by explaining the Bill to the attendees. He presented the Bill’s main features and benefits:

Proposed FOSS Bill (RA 1716)

Main Features

  1. It declares as state policy the use of open source software products developed by Filipinos (Sec. 2);
  2. It defines open standards and FOSS and mandates the government to recognize licenses in this area (Sec. 3,4,5,6);
  3. It mandates the use of open standards and FOSS in the public sector, except in extraordinary circumstances as determined by public hearing (Sec. 5, 6, 7);
  4. It gives preference for Filipino-owned ICT companies in the government’s procurement of FOSS goods and services (Sec. 8);
  5. In the private sector, the bill promotes the use of FOSS and open standards through non-fiscal incentives (Sec. 10);
  6. It promotes FOSS and opens standards in educational institutions and prohibits schools from offering certification programs exclusively for proprietary software (Sec. 9);
  7. It bans the patenting of software (Sec. 11);
  8. It mandates the CICT to oversee the law’s implementation and creates the Office on FOSS Migration as an attached agency to ensure this (Sec. 13, 14, 15);
  9. It sets targets for FOSS migration for the first five years of the Act’s implementations (Sec. 13).

Benefits

  1. Guard the people’s right to access public information;
  2. Lower the overall cost of ICT in the public and private sectors;
  3. Make IT more accessible to a greater number of users;
  4. Unlock the potential and encourage the development of a self-reliant, genuinely Filipino IT industry; and,
  5. Provide greater security for highly sensitive government and private information systems.

To explain the concept of FOSS to the uninitiated, the Congressman unleashed his favorite analogy: Pinakbet. The name is not copyrighted and the recipe is in the public domain. People are not prohibited to modify the recipe to come up with their own versions of Pinakbet. Had the Pinakbet been copyrighted, pinakbet would not be popular. And to prove the feasibility of FOSS, he mentioned Venezuela as among the countries that mandated FOSS in government.

Towards the end of his talk, Rep. Casiño admitted that the FOSS Act Bill has been in a stiff battle. In fact, in the previous Congress, only three legislators expressed support of the bill. It underwent only one hearing and was overtaken by events. This Congress, Bayan Muna wanted to breathe a new life to it by refiling it as House Bill 1716. He further told the attendees that the Congress itself has been a captive market for Microsoft, because the latter has been able to set up an E-learning center in Congress and provided free laptops (?) to few congresspersons. Although, he couldn’t see why government cannot see the light. “My entire office has gone open source already. The Supreme Court already uses OpenOffice, and so does the DOJ,” he enthused. Finally, he said that there’s nothing wrong with free choice so long as it is an informed one.

The Congressman had to leave immediately after his talk. But he left behind him his Chief of Staff, Marco Polo (?), whom he assigned to answer questions for him during an open forum afterwards. Two lawyers gave their reactions to the bill. Atty. Dizon, I understand the Bill’s consultant, gave his own take about the positive aspects of the bill, namely: a) developing local capacity and industry, b) reducing imports, conserving foreign exchange, c) enhancing national security, d) reducing copyright infringement, e) enabling localization, f) increasing competition, g) access to information, and h) encouraging cooperation.

Atty. Dizon further gave his comments. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out all of what he said but the ones that I picked up were that the bill: a) is aggressive in policy and targets, b) has not elaborated further on the definition of FOSS, and, c) must not merely focus on the TCO side but on the technology transfer and access to know-how. Then, it was Atty. Dissini’s turn to speak. He seemed to suggest that FOSS must be subjected to the marketplace. If FOSS is not yet ready for the market and government gives special treatment of it, then we’re in for a big trouble in the end. FOSS must be able to compete with the proprietary softwares in terms of companies that are ready to provide FOSS services.

At the open forum, Prof. Feria was the first one to give his view of the bill. He feared that the bill will fail just because there is not enough infrastructure to support the adoption of FOSS. FMA’s Al Alegre agreed with Prof. Feria and further advised that to make sure that we won’t practicaly lose at the end, we may either come up with a separate bill on the bill’s ‘winnable’ aspects or change the bill so that it softens on the radical aspects and highlights the acceptable ones. He specified ‘open standards and open formats’ as two of these aspects. He also advised that the Bill consider the eco-system that currently prevails as far as softwares and ICT are concerned.

A director from a government-owned corporation that provides ICT services to government services (I didn’t get the names) described the bill as “a loaded gun poked on a child.” He claimed that the Bill misses out on the realities. He said that government lacks the mechanisms for successful ICT projects as well as the expertise to sustain them. It’s not enough that you provide softwares without giving consideration of support. His point was basically echoed by another lady who claimed to be a “partner” of Microsoft and Oracle and an open source advocate herself. (I think that she said that she’s been involved in POSITIVE [Philippine Open Source Initiative] that aims to promote open source technologies in institutions and key industries. She said that there are already 240 schools that have adopted open source in various ways.)

That lady sounded like mouthpiece of the proprietary software world, despite her saying that she’s an open source advocate and that FOSS and proprietary softwares can co-exist. She said that people should be given a free choice particularly in situations when proprietary solutions are better than open source ones. She also said that mandating FOSS will kill the software industry. I found her funny by saying that government cannot automatically choose FOSS because it’s a (product) brand, a no-no in the procurement process. What?

I was surprised by the apparent unpreparedness of the Rep. Casino’s Chief of Staff to react to the points raised. He could only participate or engage in the discussion through general statements and an assurance that the points raised by the participants will be considered. Also, when I asked him if BM will get prepared during Congress hearings through feasibility studies, he did not answer directly. He just said that Cong. Casino will be prepared to face the Congressmen. When Al asked him how many Congressmen have signified support for the bill, he initially said that the Bill is not actually difficult to seek supporters as it “crosses party lines”, and later said there are 10 (in contrast to 3 that Casino was quoted by inquirer.net). When further pushed to specify the names, he could not do so except to name Peter Cayetano and Chiz Escudero, who are now Senators themselves. I could only imagine that four of the 10 supporters are representatives from Bayan Muna, Gabriela, and Anakpawis. I think that the Bill, as it is today, is more acceptable under a more democratic (or socialist) government, or when government leaders truly espouse national sovereignty and people-based development.

Indeed, the proposed Bill, with all its noble intentions, will be in a very stiff battle in Congress. If Bayan Muna will not consider the comments from both the progressives who are not necessarily radical and techies who are not necessarily conservative or close-minded, the Bill will just become a losing battle. For the first type, has BM really consulted those outside its own network? For the second type, has BM tried to rub elbows with “Microsoft-friendly” software developers and user communities?

As the bill touches on highly ideological and theoretical concepts, BM must exhaust all means to debate with those with contending views.

I think that it would be better if Bayan Muna goes back to the drawing board and reflects: Are we really doing a great service to FOSS by not letting it fail in the end? I’m an out-and-out FOSS advocate (I bash Windows at the slightest opportunity) so I don’t want my FOSS advocacy, our FOSS advocacy, to fail. After all, our advocacies are not only confined at the halls of Congress. With our without the bill, we need to increase the FOSS tribe down to the grassroots level. And I’m sure that if there’s critical mass to push for FOSS, the FOSS bill, with all the necessary changes to it, will win hands down.

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Microsoft’s document formats disapproved, but “could” win in the end

Rejoice, rejoice! Microsoft’s supposed open document formats under the name OOXML was disapproved based on the actual votes cast by participating members of the International Standard Organization (ISO). There’s more reason to rejoice because the Philippines is one of the No-OOXML countries, thanks to the participation of the DTI’s Bureau of Product Standards. (Which, actually, caught me by surprise. Does this mean that DTI is for open document standards? Great, if that’s true. Paging Microsoft Philippines. You’ve got a work to do here.)

If the population of the countries who voted No is to be factored in, it shows that almost half (3.2 billion) of the world’s population is against OOXML. Big countries such as China and India voted No. Powerful countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, France, and Canada voted No. Cuba voted No, although its sister nation–Venezuela–known for its anti-American stance surprisingly voted Yes. The Philippines and Thailand are only two Southeast Asian countries that voted No. Malaysia and Vietnam abstained while Singapore voted Yes.

But Microsoft is just in the stage of scraping through yet. The final stage for the approval or disapproval will happen in February next year. Between now and that month, Microsoft can muster all its wherewithal to convince more voting country members to vote for OOXML as well as those who voted No to change their minds favorably for the proposed standard. A right way to do that is to modify OOXML based on the comments made by the voting countries. The other yet ignoble ways are to bribe and sow FUD (fear, uncertainty, deception) among these countries.

Actually, ICT activists were surprised at the turnout of the OOXML votation. As Groklaw said, money can’t buy love. Still, the fear remains given that Microsoft is given another chance to recover from the “tactical” loss. It’s still a tight battle because Microsoft will not simply give in to the ODF.

Gmail’s attachments handling features, more Microsoft-friendly?

I can’t believe that Gmail doesn’t have an HTML viewer for documents produced using ODF. Look at the image that contains four document types and Gmail’s corresponding services for each type. The view-as-HTML feature is available only for PDF and Microsoft’s binary formats (.doc, .xls, etc.). Likewise, both formats of ODF and pre-Microsoft Office 2007 can be edited through Google’s web-based document processing service.

Interestingly, Gmail has not yet developed a service to OOXML documents more than the download one. Does this mean that Gmail is part of the “No OOXML” movement or it’s just waiting for the approval of the ISO for OOXML as another standard document format alongside ODF?

Hats off to Gmail for its current stance vis-a-vis OOXML. But let me go back to my earlier rant. Why doesn’t Gmail give to OpenOffice documents the importance it gives to Microsoft Office documents? It would be handier for us OpenOffice fans to have an HTML viewer for OpenOffice documents. (I wonder also if there is a program to view OpenOffice documents on a terminal as ‘catdoc’ does to MS Word documents.)

Is OpenOffice condoning Microsoft’s non-standard format?

Sun’s OpenOffice XML development team has created an import filter for OOXML documents. (For the uninitiated, this means that a person using OpenOffice [Microsoft Office’s open source equivalent] will be able to read and edit documents previously saved in Microsoft Office 2007.) However, there is no OOXML export filter (yet?), meaning that an OpenOffice user cannot save documents to OOXML format.

Why such decision to develop the import filter? Michael Brauer of the development team has this to say in his GullFOSS blog entry:

Well, it has always been in our strong interest that OpenOffice.org users can seamlessly interact with multiple file formats, including the binary formats of MS Office. So it is only natural that we care about OOXML now, too.

OOXML is the file format of Microsoft Office 2007. That means, sooner or later, people that use Microsoft Office 2007 and want to migrate to OpenOffice.org will look for ways to get existing OOXML documents into OpenOffice.org. And at some point in time, OpenOffice.org users will receive OOXML documents, because Microsoft Office 2007 users will start sending them out, assuming that everyone can read them.

Brauer further said that an OOXML export filter is impossible. He emphasized that OpenOffice will always save to the ODF by default.

This move by the team came in the wake of the growing effort to pressure the ISO not to approve of OOXML as another standard for document interoperability, side by side with the internationally recognized open document format (ODF). One of the comments to Brauer’s post pointed out OpenOffice’s apparent support to a format that is “neither XML nor open.”

I’m sitting in between two positions here. On the one hand, I find the developing team’s move as permissible, because of the concern they’re giving to potential OpenOffice users migrating from Office 2007. On the other hand, I sense that the initiative is not helping neither the no-ooxml movement nor the OpenOffice advocacy any.

I suggest that the developing team repackage the import filter into a kind of OOXML-import plug-in that is not part of the OpenOffice distribution. Instead, let that be hosted by SourceForge or OpenOffice.org itself. Of course, that means an extra effort on the part of users but at least that implicitly sends the message that OpenOffice does not condone non- or anti-standard formats.