The ODF debate: A real world view

The file formats fight club

Comment What exactly is meant by document portability? Does it mean that a document created in one application can be viewed using a different application on another operating system? Does it mean that the document can be viewed and edited within another application on the same or another OS platform? Or does it simply mean that you can be sure that the document you create today can be read in the future using proprietary products from the same software vendor?

Taking an example from another industry, when Led Zeppelin recorded their concerts at Knebworth in 1979 they did so on 2" video tape that 25 years later was a challenge to read, requiring a baking process as well as a trip to the Far East to find a still working player. Setting aside whether this material is mission critical to rock fans, setting yourself up for a similar problem from proprietary and unsupported file formats is unthinkable in a business context—isn’t it?

Well, this is the question lying at the heart of a debate that is raging at the moment, largely between open source advocates and their arch enemy, Microsoft.

As is often the case with vendors, and Microsoft is no exception, use of standards is somewhat self-serving. The "open" file format for Office 2007 being a good example. Microsoft is promoting a new standard called Office Open XML, which the company has submitted to ECMA International (the current name for the former European Computer Manufacturers Association) for certification. Following that, it plans to submit it to the ISO, a likely critical requirement for government use—the public sector cannot be seen to be incapable of handling ISO standard documents, even if they are only used by a minority.

In practical terms, Microsoft admits that the Open XML standard is large, but argues that this is to encompass the existing legacy base of Microsoft file formats (no comment on whether the changes in the past were a way to lock users into an upgrade cycle), enabling, in theory, any document written with any version of a Microsoft product to be readable in the future.

Questions have been asked as to why Microsoft didn’t just adopt the existing ISO standard OpenDocument Format (ODF), which is also based on XML and is being promoted heavily by Microsoft adversaries like IBM. Obviously Microsoft has reservations, primarily based around the compromises that the existing standard would cause to some of the advanced features embedded in Office documents, plus the plain fact that for all its headline status, ODF has many constraints and limitations of its own that cut against its claim to be a universal interoperable file format.

That said, Microsoft has still come in for some flack for its stance, and, presumably to diffuse this, it's decided to sponsor an open source project to produce MS Office connectors to the existing ODF standard (though it has declined to take the lead). This is also planned to draw the sting out of any suggestion that Open XML is an interoperable standard for only one application — Microsoft Office.

One wag, commenting on Brian Jones’ Blog, has suggested that since Open XML will need to contain information about previous proprietary Microsoft file formats that it should be possible for the open source community to add complete Microsoft compatibility into ODF, which would be easier than trying to make Open XML work on non-Microsoft platforms because of issues related to Windows dependency in the proposed standard. It’s a neat idea, but perhaps the advocates should concentrate on finishing ODF first as a standard in its own right, before getting ambitions in this direction.

The bottom line with Open XML is that it’s coming in Office 2007, is essentially unstoppable, and if you put all prejudices, soap box causes and vested interests to one side, it will bring some potential benefits with it. It could, for example, be a significant help in those cases where we want to make sure that very old documents can be read and distributed into the future. Even if it ends up as simply another Microsoft-oriented file format, being openly documented, licensable at no cost and completely accessible, means it will allow far easier integration between the Microsoft environment and third party products than the old proprietary binary formats ever did.

We must also remember that Microsoft has serious plans to build a developer community around Office 2007 so, just as with .NET and Visual Basic, we can anticipate a growing level of support for Open XML from ISVs that is likely to outstrip ODF, at least in the short to medium term. If you have an application or service that you think should be integrated with or accessible through an “office like” application, or has the ability to manipulate an office style document, should you build around Open XML and reach 90 per cent- plus of the market, or ODF and reach a minority—a no-brainer really. Perhaps it ain’t fair, possible it ain’t right, but that’s the real world.

Maybe, Google office or Yahoo! office-style services can plough the open source furrow and drive the option of ODF (this is pure speculation at this stage), but if Microsoft gets the standardisation done, and therefore avoids any government issues with the file format, it’s hard to see the open source community denting the Redmond monopoly position through a debate over file formats, and evangelist spokesmen wearing Big Blue badges run the risk of appearing out of touch with mainstream reality.

Nevertheless, file formats are proving a rather contentious subject and a constant source of irritation for Microsoft. There’s also a bit of a spat on at the moment regarding the inclusion of a "save as PDF" feature in the new version of Office. I’ll be dealing with this in the next article.

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