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Open or closed? The ODF debate spills into LinuxWorld

Versora chief technology officer John Walker lays out the facts from both sides of the debate in this article on OpenDocument and Microsoft Office Open XML.

BOSTON -- The debate surrounding OpenDocument and open file standards over the past year has resulted in a rollercoaster ride of events, but oftentimes a simple question can be overlooked as advocates of open standards battle Microsoft for the fate of the office application suite.

Do users know the difference between the open standards-based OpenDocument format (ODF) and proprietary ones like Microsoft Office Open XML?

This week at LinuxWorld, you might think attendees would know the answer to that question, but John Walker, the chief technology officer of Windows-to-Linux migration vendor Versora, said he believed the answer is not cut and dried as some may think. Walker explained that each format has had its share of praise and criticisms that should be evaluated before wading into either side of this debate.

The file format debate at a glance:

1985 – Open Document Architecture debuts

1992 – PDF file format

1996 – XML standards introduced

Nov. 2002 – OASIS first founded OpenOffice XML format technical committee (later becomes ODF)

2003 Nov. 2003 – royalty-free license to Office 2003 reference schemas

May 2004 – Valoris (now Sopra Group) releases first study comparing existing Microsoft formats and ODF

Oct. 2004 – OpenDocument name change

Jan. 2005 – Microsoft publishes XML reference schemas. Microsoft first issues public release of the formats

May 2005 – OASIS approves the ODF file format

Sept. 2005 – Massachusetts standardizes on ODF, and does not include Office XML

Oct. 2005 – ODF 2.0 released

Dec. 2005 – ECMA Microsoft Office Open XML technical committee formed

March 2006 – OASIS ODF adoption committee formed with key members IBM and Oracle

2006 – Office 12 released?

Office Open XML was designed to be sensible, Walker said, while ODF was designed to be open. Microsoft's offering is also a more robust platform compared to ODF's less complex model. "Microsoft has thought a lot about document recovery [with Office Open XML]," he said. "It has a way to divide documents so that users will have redundant info, and that makes it a bit more robust. But if that's a necessary component or not is another argument altogether."

Walker also pointed to differences in vendor support. With Microsoft, the support is deeper, as studies show Office still in control of 95% of the office applications market. On the other hand, ODF can boast a broad range of vendor support, with 30 companies already signed on to support the standard, including IBM, Novell Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Many of these same vendors have also pledged support for ODF through the OASIS OpenDocument Adoption Committee. Created in March, the committee is charged with raising awareness of ODF and open standards to the point where they can be considered an alternative to proprietary formats.

In addition to sizeable vendor support, the pull of the open source community has also influenced the debate. Walker said that while it will never be known if Microsoft would have opened its XML schemas without pressure from the popularity of ODF, it is an interesting point to think about.

"One of the main reasons [OpenDocument] has become part of this politically charged arena is that free and open source software (FOSS) has started to become mainstream," Walker said. "It is hard to say if Microsoft would have standardized Office without the push, but what has been seen is that whatever Microsoft has made open has been in direct response to open source."

ODF has also accumulated quite a following outside of the U.S., and one of the key reasons why can be attributed to simple perception.

"The U.S. is often viewed as an oppressor, at least in terms of software," Walker said. "It also helps that developing countries often go with open source and open standards as their development model."

One Linux system administrator from Madrid took the oppressive label a step further. He said Microsoft is viewed as an oppressive force in software adoption, at least as far as Europeans are concerned.

Microsoft has been at odds as of late with the European Commission (EU), which has been holding hearings for its plan to fine the Redmond software giant $2 million euros ($2.4 million) per day for allegedly blocking competition by withholding information on its business software.

While many in open source would argue that the criticisms of ODF are arriving only because Microsoft is backing the groups making the complaints, Walker said ODF had a few legitimate criticisms adopters should realize before dismissing the claims entirely.

One key complaint raised against ODF when former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn said his state would be moving to open standards by 2007 was that it did not adequately address the needs of special needs employees. ODF handlers have since pledged that support would be built into future versions, and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has confirmed that ODF will be the standard in 2007.

Also on the critique docket is the fact that ODF designers limited extensions on purpose to discourage companies from making proprietary ones -- much in the same way Microsoft did with ActiveX and Java.

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