Friday, October 14, 2005

Opening up

I'm excited by OpenDocument, I know it has been around for years. It was developed by Sun, Microsoft, IBM and Corel to be an XML based standard for office suites. It hasn't caught on in huge numbers because most people use MS Office even though there are 3 revisions to the .doc standard that are incompatible with each other.

It is picking up steam with support from Massachussets. Mexico, Peru, Brazil, China, Japan, the EU and other states are considering it. I like it because it can prevent vendor lock in and promotes document portability and retrievability. Retrieval of old Office documents can be a chore after you've made a few upgrades in versions.

While Microsoft's new Office format MS XML Schema has some potential I think they would do better to look into adding OpenDocument support. The same goes for Apple's iWork suite. The ISO is received the OpenDocument schema for consideration as an international standard. If it gets approved there will be very little standing in the way of international bodies supporting it wholeheartedly. Unlike America there is little interest in using the current de facto standard of .doc for much longer, especially when MS XML will soon replace it and render it obsolete and may be altered to be less backwards compatible in the future.

Microsoft is hoping to stonewall governments into sticking with MS Office by not supporting the standard. The switch would mean that Microsoft would have to compete in an area they thought they won with Office 97.

The worst part about it from their point of view is that they could not just create a new document standard with a few bells and whistles that was incompatible with the competition. They could implement various schemas on the underlying OpenDocument XML structure to add various bells and whistles. The problem there is the same that Apple would have there is no guarantee that others won't figure out a way to get the same look and feel.

Sun sees ODF the same way as HTML a standard that can allow users to communicate despite thier choice in browser (if all pages are written to W3C specs). Microsoft is seeing only the lose of control and missing the fact that most people who use Windows will continue to use Microsoft products like Office because of preconceptions that it is better. If the governments make the change and MS is not there for it those preconceptions will be significantly challenged. Especially with the radical layout changes that Office going to go through when it hits Windows Vista. While interesting in concept and kinda cool in motion it may be a steep learning curve for casual users. OpenOffice, StarOffice, KOffice and NeoOffice all look relatively like standard Office.

Microsoft is taking a large gamble that people won't try out a low cost or free office suite instead of sticking with a $300 suite that doesn't work with government documents. Apple is missing a huge opportunity to be totally compatible with these government documents without relying on MS.

For librarians the implications are obvious, a standard XML document format will make digital libraries a lot easier to manage in the future.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

OpenDocuments closed minds

Slashdot has a posting pointing to Fox News retraction of an earlier report by James Pendergast, executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership. An earlier article on Slashdot pointed out that one of the founding members of his organization made his position look suspiciously like shilling for Microsoft.

The argument in essence is over whether Massachussetts is right to make all documents it produces available in an open source document format and PDF. If they do they would be the first state government to use OpenDocument for things like unemployment forms and anything else that is shared electronically between agencies.

The reason why it is a good idea is the reason Microsoft is so oppossed to it. OpenDocument is an open standard that anyone can use in a similiar way as PDF, you can find many apps besides Acrobat that will open PDFs. While some apps will open Word documents they do not display it properly in many cases and the new document formats Microsoft is creating for the next Office are proprietary XML. The planned change will require that all old Office documents, spreadsheets etc. be converted to the new format which may change at any time.

Office is not great at backwards compatibility when moving to a new or different version of Office (Mac to PC) reformatting often has to take place. The new Office will also require a much faster PC than most governments have so updating the office suite means updating the office PCs as well. Let's not forget that while Windows PCs dominate most of the government market there are still Mac, Linux and Sun systems out there.

Microsoft had and has a chance to use OpenDocument it is an open standard that is set forth by committee. If a Microsoft programmer sees a way to do things better in OpenDocument they are free to submit their modifications for all to use. Microsoft is also free to use OpenDocument along with their new Office document specs. They don't even have to pay a liscensing fee. The real concern is that given the ability to move to another office suite without losing their past work people may choose to do so. That choice takes away a big roadblock for most people thinking of switching from Windows.

Frankly, I think all state governments and commonwealths should move to OpenOffice or the OpenDocument format, I'm looking at you Pennsylvania. It would save taxpayers a lot of money in licensing fees and could spur competition in the office suite world which has grown stagnant.

For the curious OpenOffice runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X (in X11). NeoOffice is a native port of OpenOffice for OSX users who don't want to delve into the Unix goodness that lies at the core of the Mac. There are a number of other products that use the OpenDocument format but these are free and easy to install.