The Fork in the Road Is Paved With Good Intentions

Jon Noring replied very graciously to my earlier post questioning how open the OpenReader project really is. Clearly Jon Noring and I agree on much, and I thank him for the positive spirit in which he took my rather pointed comments. But nevertheless I think we still have a bit of a disconnect on openness. While we may have some minor disagreements on other points, the biggie for me is the “fork and take over” move that the OpenReader group seems to expect us all to buy into. So I think this whole fork issue merits a bit more discussion.
Jon stated clearly that “we will consider submitting the OpenReader Framework Specification … when the specification is stable and proven ‘in the field’ with commercial implementation(s).” His colleague David Rothman further noted that they are “shopping around” for the right standards-group. To me this is a Microsoft-style takeover: embrace an existing format/protocol/language, extend, and then declare that your “fork” is the right stuff which you will kindly “consider” submitting for standardization to your choice of venue – not necessarily the folks who are responsible for the underlying standard you’ve “borrowed” (C# anyone?). And whether or not a pliant standards body is found, the fait accompli of first putting commercial implementations in the field creates a strong disincentive to do anything other than bless the particular dialect that you’ve already unilaterally established.
I’m not suggesting these aren’t reasonable business tactics under some circumstances, only that we call a spade a spade. Or, rather, a fork a fork. And hold the we-are-more-open rhetoric, please.
Of course forks happen all the time, with formats as well as open source projects. There can be valid reasons for forking, although in e.g. the Linux community it seems ego and vested interests have a lot to do with it, with the issue of “control” looming a lot larger than that of “openness”. Indeed it’s widely accepting that forking is undesirable, “a kind of plagiarism that is not supported by the community without significant reasons” [1]
And in this case I’m left scratching my head to find reasons: the reinvigorated IDPF has a head of steam up to get extensions to OEBPS worked out, including the critical container format, so why not focus on helping get the job done? Membership fees is a red herring: as Jon Noring mentioned,the IDPF has extended Invited Expert status to interested parties, including himself.
To me OpenReader appears eerily similar to the WHATWG splinter effort to advance web formats started by Opera, Mozilla, and Safari folks started back in 2004, about which I feel pretty much the same way. But while WHATWG hasn’t gotten very far with this approach, at least they have submitted their proposals to the group (W3C) responsible for the underlying standards which they propose to extend. And, they at least started off with inherent credibility as constituting all the major non-Microsoft web browser vendors. Finally, they are up-front that it’s an invitation-only party, and don’t lay it on thick about being more-open-than-thou.
Yet as far as I can tell, the WHATWG effort has after close to two years accomplished nothing more than taking wind out of the sails of W3C’s own standards efforts, for example increasing FUD around adoption of open standards like XForms. Thus, only helping Microsoft as they seek to promote IE7 and proprietary alternatives to Web standards. Exactly the opposite of the WHATWG’s expressed objectives! I lay the majority of the blame on egos (doubtless some of them on the W3C side of the fence), and have some theories about how the vested interests in Redmond may have helped along this debacle.
I really really don’t want to see this same scenario play out in the ePublishing space. That’s the reason I’m spending cycles to push on this issue: not hostility to OpenReader’s goals, which I largely share, but the desire not to see them backfire.
So while I appreciate Jon’s invitation for Adobe to join his “splinter group”, at this point I see no good reason to do a “WHATWG-style fork” on the IDPF. I submit to Jon and the OpenReader group that rather than set themselves up to be a fork, they work with the rest of us to define an “OEBPS 2.0″ and then to establish an early open source implementation thereof. That would truly be an OpenReader accomplishment to be proud of. And, I’m not a patient guy: if the IDPF doesn’t keep moving briskly, I promise I will be jostling to be first in line in search of alternative venues for accomplishing our shared goals.