Open Documents

Open signThe debate about the OpenDocument format is just beginning. Massachusetts put a stake in the ground with their decision to adopt ODF for all employees in the Commonwealth and for anyone doing business with them. This may go down in history as a bold and important move. But Microsoft, which opposes ODF, will not give up easily.
There was an OpenOffice.org 2005 conference in Koper-Capodistria, Slovenia last week at which a professor delivered a keynote speech entitled: "Should I Adopt OpenOffice?". It is reported that after taking a few questions from the audience, a loud voice boomed out from the back of the auditorium saying "In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Microsoft technical officer." The person then launched at attack on the professor about the information that had just been presented. The gentleman then claimed that the European Union had accepted Microsoft file formats as "sufficiently open" and finally, he directly attacked the new OASIS OpenDocument Format. It was further reported that the professor had not even mentioned the OpenDocument Format or Microsoft’s "Office Open XML". Needless to say, Microsoft is very defensive about the subject. Why? They have a monopoly and they want to keep it. Maintaining some degree of control over the details behind the formats gives a vendor more flexibility in developing their software and in deciding when and how to offer upgrades. Having to work with formats that are controlled by an outside independent third party is definitely harder.
Microsoft’s behavior is very reminiscent of IBM’s behavior in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Numerous file formats were proposed by other vendors but IBM consistently maintained that the mainframe was the best place to keep data. IBM totally controlled the formats. The difference between IBM’s behavior and Microsoft’s is that IBM heard the market speak out about the Internet, open source, Linux, and other grass roots ideas and rather than fight the changes, IBM adopted them and in fact is leading the charge. Microsoft has done this in some ways, particularly in the area of web services, but when it comes to Office, they clearly want to maintain some hooks that are not open to the user.
Reportedly, the dialogue at the conference in Slovenia got ugly with the Microsoft gentleman taking the attack to a personal level and the professor offering a metaphor that basically portrayed users as ‘slaves’, leaving it unsaid who the "master" was. It turned into a shouting match. Another gentleman, a de facto leader of the OpenOffice.org community, characterized the hallway confrontation as absolutely confirming to him and many leading members of the OpenOffice.org community that OpenDocument Format is a very big problem for Microsoft.
OASIS, the international e-business standards consortium, announced in May 2005 that its members had approved the Open Document Format for Office Applications as an OASIS Standard. OpenDocument provides a royalty-free, XML-based file format that covers features required by text, spreadsheets, charts, and graphical documents. Lest anyone think that this is just a few words, the actual standard is described in a document called “OpenDocument Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0” that is 706 pages long! Both the Oasis standard and Microsoft Office 12 are built on an xml-based file format, but being XML doesn’t necessarily mean open. All the experts agree — you can hide a lot in a file format. OpenDocument is revealing everything about the file formats — 100%.
What’s not to like about ODF? Nothing. IT vendors such as IBM, Sun and others like it because more interoperability and compatibility for text, spreadsheets, charts, and graphical documents means more applications can be created resulting in more data accessible to their hardware, software, and services. Vertical industries such as automobile and aircraft manufacturing like it because it means reduced cost of interoperating with their vendors and business partners. Governments like it for the same reason. Consumers will like it because they will have more choice in what software they use while knowing that they can exchange documents easily with friends and family.
Adam Barr, ironically a former software developer at Microsoft for ten years, feels so strongly about opening up formats that he has been leading a group called the Open Data Format Initiative with the goal to encourage all software companies to document any data formats they use to store user data. ODFI has a three-part plan to convince software companies to release data format documentation, design a standard way to describe data formats and validate data files against the described format, and to work to pass laws that governments can only store user data in “ODFI-compliant” data files. Apparently, Massachusetts totally bought in to Mr. Barr’s philosophy.