Open Documents and Last Chance for OOXML

Those who were on Spring Break last week may be forgiven if they are still shaking the sand out of their ears, but we here at LinuxInsider never take our noses off the grindstone even for a moment in our relentless quest to keep our readers informed.

And a good thing, too, because last week was an important week. First, Wednesday was none other than Document Freedom Day, the first global event dedicated to document liberation and open standards. While some of you were lounging around watching the clouds go by, roughly 200 teams from more than 60 countries worldwide were hard at work organizing local activities to raise awareness of the open document cause.

Take that, Redmond!

Historic Saturday

What made the issue especially pressing, of course, was that after the ISO’s initial rejection of Office Open XML as an official standard in September, Saturday was the final deadline for votes by ISO member national bodies to decide the matter once and for all.

By the time you read this the vote will have happened, but as we write it’s still yet to come. The suspense is killing us!

For those of you who need a little refresher, the world of open document standards has been a contentious one. OOXML is Microsoft’s bid, but ODF (OpenDocument Format), which is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), is the ISO-approved standard that already exists. Meanwhile, the OpenDocument Foundation, which spent most of the past five or so years promoting ODF, recently switched direction and embraced CDF, the Compound Document Format, instead.

Agonizing Anticipation

As you might expect, Red Hat and much of the open source world are against approval of OOXML.

Indeed, as the big vote approached, the folks over at Red Hat were busy celebrating Document Freedom Day, both officially and in their blogs. Harish Pillay, for instance, worried about Singapore’s unclear stance on OOXML, as well as the general outlook for the vote in Geneva.

IBM’s Bob Sutor, meanwhile, who is vice president of open source and standards, has been worrying about the vote for months. In addition to making a pitch for Document Freedom Day last week, he also noted back in January that until the final vote is made, “saving your documents in OOXML format is probably about the riskiest thing you can do if you are concerned with long term interoperability.”

Neither Here Nor There

It’s a big issue with far-reaching implications, so LinuxInsider took to the Linux blogs to see what others think.

“Frankly, I’m amazed at both how insignificant this decision is in the long run and how big it has been made in the inner circles of the software world,” Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider. “What Microsoft hopes to gain from OOXML standardization is simply the ability to use the buzzword ‘standards-based’ or ‘standards-compliant,’ but if the vote turns out unfavorable to Microsoft, they’re not going to scrap their product and ship ODF.

They’re just going to truck on without the buzzword label.”

Neither victory nor defeat for Microsoft will do anything to advance real open formats, Dean added.

‘Irrelevant’ Outcome

“Personally, my opinion is that the outcome of the vote is irrelevant,” Dean asserted. “Competition and evolution are the lifeblood of business and life itself. With multiple options for customers to choose from, each may place his fortunes where he feels they are best protected.

“For one user that MAY be in a document that is open and standards-based, but for another it may be in a format that is proprietary, but that he feels is technically superior,” he added. “Frankly, that’s his business and his alone.”

‘Still Against It’

Not everyone viewed the matter so philosophically, however.

“In regards to the OOXML vote, I am still against it, as I was last September,” Foogazi blogger Adam Kane told LinuxInsider. “OOXML is based on the needs of Microsoft Office, not on the needs of everyone — it shouldn’t even be considered a standard.”

That there is a need for open document formats, on the other hand, seemed to be more widely agreed-upon.

“If for no other reason than long-term viability of the content of digital documents, open formats have by their nature the advantage of being more future-forward,” Dean said. “Should Microsoft or any other proprietary format holder go under or be acquired by another entity that doesn’t wish to support that format, for example, the content of those digital documents ends up in oblivion.”

Similarly, “I do believe the need for free document formats and open standards is crucial to the future success of digital documents in general,” Kane said.

“Let’s say you wrote a thesis in college using Word Perfect; today, you’d have one heck of a time opening that document while still preserving the formats you originally intended,” he noted. “Had there been an Open Document Format back then, you’d be able to open your thesis without any issues now and any time in the future. This is what makes ODF important.”

Focus on Applications

In the end, however, what matters most is not so much even the formats themselves as the applications that use them, Douglas Johnson, standards manager at Sun Microsystems, pointed out.

“Sun has always been behind ODF as an ISO format,” Johnson told LinuxInsider. “If you want to be present and acceptable on as many different platforms as you can, clearly ODF is the way to go,” he said.

Yet “the formats don’t uniquely imply a single application,” Johnson said. “What I’d really like to see is for the formats to be disambiguated. The whole point is to be able to use whatever applications you wish.”

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