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OpenDocument Alliance to fight looming 'digital Dark Age'

The potential for a digital information Dark Age has never been stronger, but the formation of a new alliance of vendors, academics and users could be what's needed to keep the light on.

The digital Dark Age.

It is what many IT executives fear this period of IT history could be called in the future if digital documents remain the property of vendors and not the users who created them.

If open standards are not adopted today, they fear documents could be unreadable in the future, and entire portions of history lost simply because people did not have the correct means to view them.

But today an alliance of 35 vendors, governments, academic institutions, associations and user groups called the OpenDocument Alliance took a step to ensure that their vision of open standards would become the de facto standard for all digital documentation. IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp. and the American Library Association are key participants in the OpenDocument Alliance.

For more on the OpenDocument debate:

OpenDocument support reaffirmed by Mass. officials

Mass CIO defends move to OpenDocument

IP attorney: ODF remains front burner for Mass

This alliance will support an open standard file format, called OpenDocument (ODF). OpenDocument is an XML-based file format that is short for the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications. It is an open document file format for saving and exchanging editable office documents such as text documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

Currently, documents are created by public sector agencies using different applications that may not be compatible with one another. The aim of the alliance is to use a truly open standard file format like OpenDocument that enables governments and their constituents to use, access and store documents, records and information both today and in the future. This is independent of the applications or enterprise platforms used for their creation or future access.

Current landscape is ready for a change

"Today there is a severe risk of reaching a point where historians and archivists would actually be unable to read the processed documents and the threads by which [government] decisions were made," said Simon Phipps, the chief open source officer for Sun Microsystems.

But by using open standards like OpenDocument, Phipps said, a standard base line could be created within the industry that would eliminate royalty fees for viewing documents as well as the vendor license lock-in that is widespread today.

But why now? Why start an alliance devoted to the adoption of the ODF? For Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source, it's just a matter of timing. It's as simple as the market being ready today for more openness.

"The market understands the value of a truly open standard, and we are on the way to achieving complete interoperability -- especially with document-oriented information," he said.

Ken Wasch, the president of the Software and Information Industry Association, added there were three key drivers for open standards today: Users do not want to be locked into any proprietary format; openness is gaining traction in the industry as major companies embrace openness; and the market is demanding more interoperability.

Changing the way people think, one doc at a time

One of the largest opponents to date has not been some large proprietary vendor, as some advocates would have the public believe, but instead has been the short-term way of thinking within the fast-moving technology field.

"It is beginning to dawn on users that this is a matter of long-term ethical responsibility. We need to preserve our heritage and make sure that when the great things are done by various politicians, representatives and civil servants we will be able to, in 30 to 50 years, actually read the material," Phipps said.

Phipps also said that he expected to see less of the squabbling between vendors that was seen in Massachusetts OpenDocument debate from late 2005. That debate ended recently when Governor Mitt Romney's administration said the ODF standard would still be supported even after CIO Peter Quinn's resignation in January.

"I had the privilege of speaking at the same conference as [Peter Quinn] recently, and he told me his goal as CIO was never to discriminate between or against vendors, but to address the issue that in the use of computers, people have focused a lot on the short term," Phipps said.

As the ODF Alliance gets its footing in coming months, Sutor said he expects the message to intensify.

"People are changing their ways of thinking about what seems like fairly elementary things -- when people create something, the information they create is theirs. There should be no vendor that you have to pay for access to your file formats," he said.

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