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.

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