Whither OpenDocument Format?

Shakespeare wrote that a rose called by any other name would still smell as sweet. Proponents of open source software and standardizing document formats might wonder whether the same sentiments apply to the poetry between the OpenDocument Format, or ODF, and the Compound Document Format, or CDF.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) oversees the ODF standard. That format has been accepted as an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard. At the end of October, however, the OpenDocument Foundation decided to abandon its namesake format after five years of promoting it. It will now work instead on CDF, which was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Meanwhile, the ODF Alliance, led by executive director Marino Marcich, continues its effort to promote the format. All of this leaves industry watchers to wonder what is going on. Is ODF still viable? Is CDF the right answer? Which voices are rising above the cacophony?

“CDF is not a competitor or alternative to ODF. You’re dealing with apples and oranges here. Just take a look at CDF’s charter, where it is explicitly stated that it is not within scope to create a new document format for any specific purpose, where the new format does not consist of a combination of existing W3C formats. Many of the same vendors support both and do not regard the two as being locked in any sort of battle,” Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, told LinuxInsider.

New Game Plan

Conspiracy theorists may be disappointed to hear the Foundation’s members were not forced out. The group just gave up its interest in the concept.

“The Open Document Foundation, which consisted of three individuals, disbanded,” Marcich said. “The Foundation’s proposals in OASIS did not receive sufficient votes — quite common in any standards-setting body. Over the past few years, I have worked with the individuals involved. It’s unfortunate that they chose to eventually disband the Foundation, but I wish them well.”

To better understand the developments involving the open document standard, observers need to recognize what the respective organizations are, he suggested. OASIS is the not-for-profit consortium that “owns” the ODF specification, driving its maintenance and development.

The Alliance, whose membership is fast-approaching 500 in 53 countries, has more support now than ever. In addition, the ODF specification itself has never been more popular, explained Marcich. In fact, the Netherlands is the latest country to adopt ODF.

Growing List

The OpenDocument Format was approved as an international standard in May 2006 and since then has gathered a growing list of governments supporting it. According to the ODF, policy actions by governments that support the ODF standard ensure the benefits of choice, access, interoperability and lower costs.

As of this month, some 17 governments from around the world have passed policies supporting the ODF standard. The U.S., British and German governments have yet to come on board. However, the state of Massachusetts, Bristol City (UK) and Freiburg (Germany) have voted in favor of the standard.

Also, more than 50 governmental agencies around the globe are using office applications that support the ODF standard.

Redmond End Run?

Meanwhile, Microsoft is awaiting a hearing on its appeal of the rejection of OOXML (Office Open XML) format it developed as an international standard. What does the ODF shakeup have to do with Microsoft’s effort to secure ISO approval of OOXML? Nothing, Marcich asserted.

“Opponents of ODF tried to portray a major rift in the ODF community and a choice of not just two, but three competing document formats. Beyond that, this story will not affect the Alliance, ODF, or OOXML for that matter,” he said.

As of Nov. 11, 2007, the Open Document Foundation’s official Web site has been shut down. This no doubt adds finality to the organization’s disbanding.

Big Guns Don’t Count?

Some industry players are not so quick to count out Microsoft’s influence in positioning its own OOXML format as a front runner with the ISO. Microsoft is one of the biggest performers among both consumers and enterprises.

It maintains a hefty market share of users with its Microsoft Office suite and is increasing its penetration into the user base with Office 2007, noted Jason Larock, director of product management for Corel’s WordPerfect Office. That has to carry considerable weight because users are not likely to to stop using it because the ISO does not make the new OOXML the standard.

“That format is already the default in Microsoft Office 2007,” Larock told LinuxInsider. “That’s why the industry has to stay compatible with OOXML. Things will heat up in the new year around the Microsoft hearing in February.”

Some experts suggest that Microsoft’s document format is flawed. That, in part, accounts for its initial ISO rejection.

“The known challenges and gaps in OOXML [are] well documented in the cyberspace. So without a crystal cube, I look forward to Microsoft adopting and supporting ODF sooner than later,” Antony Satyadas, chief competitive marketing officer for IBM Software Group, told LinuxInsider.

Filtering vs. Standards

Corel’s policy is to focus on what its customers want rather than get overly involved in any one document format, Larock explained. WordPerfect uses Corel’s proprietary document format but makes that code available.

“We have filters built in to translate into more than 65 different file formats, including OOXML and ODF,” he said. “That list included some legacy WordPerfect, AMIPro, PDF, multiple MS Word earlier formats and numerous graphic file formats.”

Maintaining filters for legacy document formats is important. People have lots of older files in archive that they still want to access, said Larock.

Up for Grabs

The evolution of text on the Internet along with the use of Web 2.0 applications is starting to have an impact. It is becoming a contest between a desktop presence and a Web-based format, according to Larock. He compared the situation to the transition from analog to digital formats in the telephone industry.

“In the short term we will not have a single document format win out. The key will be government adoption. Governments are still evaluating the standards. This will dictate what happens in the industry,” cautioned Larock.

However, if there is going to be a document standards battle, CDF will gain a strong following, Larock believes. It combines a number of document types into one new format.

Single or Multiple?

Some industry leaders feel that being able to filter file formats among various programs is adequate. Others, however, insist that having a single format is essential.

“Open standards drive interoperability and integration, provide flexibility and choice, reduce cost, drive innovation and therefore is a customer priority. IBM strategy is aligned to customer priorities,” said Satyadas.

Moving away from storing intellectual capital in proprietary formats is fundamental, he noted. ODF is the first standard in this space. Having multiple standards to do the same thing increases complexity and cost, he said.

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