Open Document Format: What’s Next?

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For all the passion stirred up by the debate for (Bray, Carr, Ruby, Walli) and against (Asay, Coursey) the State of Massachusetts’ selection of the Open Document Format (ODF) as a mandated standard, that battle is now over (at least for the time being), with the original recommendation being upheld. With that battle now behind us, I wanted to take a moment to ask the question: what’s next for the ODF?

Before I get there, a couple of comments on some of the public assertions about the Open Document Format:

  1. The Open Document Format is not supported by any currently shipping products:”
    This depends on how one defines “shipping.” If by that term the intent is to describe shrink-wrapped final products with commercial support, the statement is true, at least for a few weeks. As I’ve mentioned before, the commercial and non-commercial options available (KOffice, OO.o, Star Office, and Workplace to start) for the ODF are likely to outnumber or at least equal the platforms supporting Microsoft’s Office Open XML formats, but if the focus is on right now (despite the fact that the MA deadline is over a year away) it’s a true statement. But two things bother me about the folks who make this argument:

    • First, the ODF is supported by the currently available and freely downloadable OpenOffice.org beta, which I’ve been running in a production capacity for several months now. Here’s a presentation authored in the format that I gave last week.
    • Second, if one defines “shipping” as a current production ready version, I don’t have a huge problem with that but one must then acknowledge that the ODF alternative, Microsoft’s Office Open XML formats, are not currently supported either and won’t be for months.

    Pick one argument, you don’t get both.

  2. OpenOffice.org is slower than its Microsoft Office counterpart:”
    George Ou got flamed pretty heavily for this claim, but being a daily user of OO.o I personally wouldn’t dispute it. OO.o is more than good enough for my requirements – and I’d classify myself in both the power user / information worker categories – but I certainly wouldn’t contend that its comparable to Microsoft Office with respect to performance. This, incidentally, is a big reason that I believe that Microsoft would be best served by offering ODF support within its product, which would show it being willing to compete on a product quality rather than format basis.

  3. The Massachusetts decision is inherently anti-Microsoft:”
    Unless someone can get Kriss on the record as saying this, this seems to me to be so much speculation, because all I’ve seen and heard them say publically is the opposite. But let’s accept for the sake of argument Coursey’s claim that “Massachusetts’ decision is as much about dumping Microsoft as anything else.” If one makes that argument, it seems only fair for Microsoft to share the blame, as they are declining to provide what a rather large customer is asking for. Whether or not MA is demanding it b/c Microsoft doesn’t provide it isn’t the point; they’re the customer, and I have yet to hear any technical argument that would prohibit Microsoft from meeting their customers demands. It’s their right to not do so, of course, but I think it’s also MA’s right to demand adherence to a standard. At the end of the day, however, it’s only when someone provides a plugin that outputs ODF from Microsoft Office and MA refuses to consider it, that I think you can make this argument. Not until then.

  4. Massachusetts is incurring significant cost as a result of this decision:”
    This, as I’ve covered before, is likely to be true. Kriss almost dismissed this point, claiming that an OO.o migration would actually be far cheaper, but that seems unlikely to me. That said, having seen the completely redesigned interface of Office 12 subsequent to that post, I think it’s now fair to conclude that the migration costs to the new Office suite – licensing aside – are not likely to be trivial. Unlike previous Office upgrades, which could basically be dropped in with a minimum of retraining, Office 12 will be a leap for some users. I happen to like and agree with the changes, but it’s not a move without risk. The person responsible for the pretty new UI, group program manager Julie Larson-Green, was quoted as saying the time required to adapt to the new version of Office is “somewhere between two days to two weeks, depending on your comfort level.” So while it’s true that OO.o is faces significant migration challenges, I think it’s also important to recognize that the transition to Office 12 might not be as seamless as it’s been in the past.

  5. There’s only one codebase supporting the Open Document Format:”
    The KOffice folks have mostly addressed this one already, but I’d also add that while OO.o/SO and Workplace hail from the same codebase, they are not the same. Workplace is not, to my understanding, a “slight” variation of the OO.o codebase but a fairly thorough overhaul. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your view of forks – I personally think its detrimental to all the parties involved – but I think it’s fair to contend that there are in fact three separate codebases (and four separate products) with plans to support the ODF.

Anyhow, those points are mostly moot given the final decision from MA, but I wanted to be throw in my two cents on some of the more debatable points. Anyway, back to the original question: what’s next for ODF? While the MA win was an important one for the nascent standard, it’s just one step towards wider adoption. Technically, the ODF TC is not sitting still, as I’m being kept apprised of some of the conversations around metadata that will potentially make ODF that much more compelling for forms consumption and other enterprise purposes.

But I’ll leave that for now, as I need to understand the issues better, and instead focus on what could potentially be even more important: attracting more ISV’s to the ODF banner. In a perfect world, one of them would be Microsoft, but at least for the time being that’s not happening. So the question is, who else might add weight and credence to the format itself? The obvious candidates, in my mind, are these: Apple, Corel, Google, Novell, and Red Hat. A couple of thoughts on each:

  1. Apple: Tim reminds us that while Microsoft may be absorbing the lion’s share of abuse around closed and proprietary file formats, Apple may be far worse. Ernest Prabhakar, Product Manager for Open Source and XML for Apple then pushes back strongly. What’s the verdict? Given Prabhakar’s claims

    We’re doing the best we can given the resources and market conditions we’re facing. With informed feedback from people like you, we hope to do even better in the future

    claims, it would seem that there’s an opportunity there but nothing imminent.

  2. Corel: While Corel has done little of late to support the ODF and does not currently implement it in its products, one of its employees was among the four original authors of the ODF specification. Their comment letter (PDF) to Massachusetts was also rather unambiguous in support of the standard it doesn’t implement, saying: “Corel strongly supports the broad adoption of the open standards Massachusetts has outlined, including XML, the OASIS Open Document Format and PDF.” From where I sit, ODF represents an opportunity for Corel to compete once more on an even footing, on the basis of their implementation, which is still popular in the legal realm if few other industries.
  3. Google: Candidly, this one’s a stretch, as no one outside the Googleplex seems to have any idea what if any ambitions Google might have within the office productivity realm. But I’ve heard the rumor from a couple of folks now that they picked up Joerg Heilig, longtime Director of Software Engineering for Star Office/OO.o, which makes the question of whether or not they might have interest in the ODF more interesting. Throw in their push towards software as a service and they might be the most interesting of all of the potential ODF players.
  4. Novell/Red Hat: These folks seem like obvious candidates for explicit ODF support; they are both involved in selling Linux desktops to enterprises and they both rely on OO.o to do so. It’d be nice to see some of them dedicate resources beyond development and support to the format itself.

Which if any of these players will commit to carrying the ODF banner alongside the likes of IBM and Sun remains to be seen, but to me its inevitable that one or more of them will. The ODF, as standards are wont to do, favors the laggards and its undeniable that everyone not named Microsoft competing in the office productivity space falls into that category. Either way, the next few months should be interesting to watch.


  1. Other important supporters of ODF would be, IMO the document management companies, starting with Oracle.
    I don't thing Google's support is a stretch. People don't search the web for Document names, they want a document that speaks about a subject. So Google will have to open the published Document and see what's in it.
    with ODF, we can change the focus from the tool to the content and content involves content managers and search engines.

  2. DM companies are a good catch, Jaime. quite true.

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