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Open signThere are some questions people have asked me about the OpenDocument Format . The first question is what is the consumer benefit of ODF, in other words why should you care? Nice that the automotive and aircraft industries can benefit but does it mean to the average consumer?
The one-word answer is compatibility. How many times have you received a file attachment from someone and could not open it or you could open but it was unreadable? All of us have had that experience. The reason for such problems is that the file format was not compatible with your system in some way. The OpenDocument Format is designed to be "open" — any software developer who wants to write a program to read or write an ODF file has complete access to the details of the formats. Assuming all parties are using software that supports ODF, if someone creates a spreadsheet on a Mac and sends it to friend who uses Linux and another friend who uses Windows and a third friend at a major corporation who uses IBM’s Workplace software — they will all be able to open the spreadsheet file and both read it and make changes to it. Another way to say it is that the ODF document is compatible across all of these different software systems.
Why not use Adobe PDF files — doesn’t that achieve the same thing? Not quite. I am a long time fan of Adobe PDF (portable data format) and use it every day. If I create a document and want to send it to a group of people, I always first convert the document to a PDF file. When others receive it, I know they will be able to read it. In that respect PDF does go a long way toward compatibility. However, if I create a document that I want to share with others and want them to be able to modify the document — not just read it — then PDF does not solve the problem. A word processor, presentation, or spreadsheet program is still needed, and it should be one that supports ODF. PDF files will remain important and there are many other uses for PDF but the basic problem of compatible documents requires ODF.
The last question I received was about Microsoft. "They took the risks and made the investments to improve (their programs) and make (them) what (they are) now, and to say they have to share it is not really fair, is it?". The concept behind ODF is not about Microsoft. Microsoft has complete access to the ODF specifications just like everyone else. No one is suggesting that Microsoft needs to give up Office. The concept behind ODF is to standardize the documents, not the programs which create or read or manipulate the documents.
It is also debatable about how much innovation Microsoft has added to "office" functionality. Certainly Wordperfect, Ami Pro, DeScribe, Lotus, and countless others have contributed a lot of innovation to document software. There is also a lot to be said for OpenOffice.org which has developed a suite of programs which do most of what Office does, runs on the Mac, Linux, and Windows, and supports ODF. I have been using openoffice for years with no problems. I do not have Microsoft Office on my ThinkPad.
Don’t feel sorry for Microsoft. They have tens of billions of dollars, thousands of very smart hardworking people, and initiatives in many high-growth areas. When it comes to compatibility of Office documents, however, it is time for them to support a more open approach.