Recently, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced that beginning in January, 2007, all state documents must be in either OpenDocument Format (ODF) or Portable Document Format (PDF). Neither of these formats is currently supported by Microsoft Office making the announcement sound like a declaration of war against Microsoft.
What's behind the announcement and why should you care?
As a matter of public policy, governments have an obligation to share information with residents and vendors. Historically, this has meant photocopying documents for distribution - a slow and costly process. Electronic document distribution is greatly preferred because it is fast, inexpensive and easy. While I don't want to enter into political debates, it can also be argued that using a proprietary vendor format to distribute information is not in the best interests of government or its citizens.
The crux of the problem is that Microsoft Office stores word-processing documents in a format defined, patented and closely guarded by Microsoft. These files are given the ".doc" extension in Windows. While any business can read and interpret these files, Microsoft is free to arbitrarily modify or replace this file format at any time, without notice. They did it before going from Office '97 to Office 2000.
The OpenDocument format is sanctioned by an international standards organization named OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) and is used by OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to Microsoft Office. As an industry standard, any proposed changes to the ODF format are subject to rigorous review and comment by OASIS members.
The PDF format was defined by Adobe Systems and placed in the public domain. It is widely used for documents that are read-only but rarely used for documents that require additional editing due to its size and complexity.
What makes the OpenDocument format so special?
There are two key elements that make the OpenDocument format appealing. It is defined by an industry standards group, thus no single company has control over future changes to the standard. Also, it is based on eXtensible Markup Language, another industry standard, known as XML.
OpenDocument format has already drawn the support of many software suppliers including Adobe, Corel, IBM, Novell and Sun. In addition, other state governments and members of the European Union are evaluating the format.
The XML standard has existed longer than ODF. It is used in a wide variety of industries from automotive and manufacturing to financial services. These industry groups have adopted XML as a standard for exchanging information.
There are many markup languages like XML. They are a popular way of describing and storing data. Another well-known markup language is HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which is used to build web pages. While HTML is designed for the presentation of text and images, XML is designed to describe and manage data. Both XML and HTML were defined by the World Wide Web Consortium, an industry standards body.
HTML controls the presentation of information via a set of pre-defined "tags" or identifiers. For example, the bold tag, defined as "< b >", causes text to be displayed in a bold font. The "< table >" tag causes your browser to display information in tabular form.
XML has very few pre-defined tags and requires developers to create tags that will describe data elements. Tag definitions are contained in a "Document Type Definition" section or DTD. The DTD defines the tags and thus the structure of the data file.
This may sound complex but it's not. The beauty of XML lies in its simplicity. With minimal training, anyone can save any type of data in an XML-formatted file. With the proper tools, anyone else can read that XML file and interpret the contents.
Microsoft supports XML. So what's the problem?
While Microsoft supports XML, they have a history of modifying standards to suit their needs. Thus we end up with "Microsoft XML" requiring specialized Microsoft tools for interpretation. Now we are back in the proprietary realm we sought to avoid.
Microsoft could easily support real ODF given that they already support a variety formats including HTML and Microsoft XML for storing Office documents. They simply need to hear that this is what their customers want.
Admittedly, industry standards are a set of compromises. No single vendor ever gets everything they want included in the standard. However, one of the primary goals of standards is to support a wide variety of vendors and users not just a chosen few.
What should your company do?
Many of the documents we create serve an immediate purpose and then get archived until we need them again. Examples include policies and procedures, user manuals, legal agreements, etc. Until we need to change these documents, there is no need to access them in their original, editable format.
In some cases, years may go by before an original document has to be accessed. What if the format is no longer supported? It may be possible to convert the document into another format but data conversions frequently result in lost or garbled information.
Open standards do not provide a guarantee of future compatibility but your chances of success are way ahead of any proprietary solution. Make support for ODF files one of your selection criteria when evaluating office software. Let your suppliers know about your concerns with proprietary data formats.
Don't hesitate to consider alternatives to Microsoft Office such StarOffice (sold by Sun Microsystems) or OpenOffice (free distribution at openoffice.org). You'll be hearing much more about this controversy in the coming months.
Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO. He is an expert in IT Business Continuity Planning, Network Security Policies, and Freelance Writing focused on white papers, case studies, and handbooks. DAMICON services firms worldwide.
This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in November 2005.
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This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.