For an office productivity application space thats been awfully staid since Microsoft smote its early office suite rivals, 2007 has been a year of significant upheaval.
Between format standardization wars, the emergence of new office application players and the re-emergence of some old faces, theres no shortage of suite buzz. Whats not yet clear is to what extent all this noise will translate into benefits for enterprises.
One of the most tantalizing benefits to come out of the current crop of office application developments is broadened platform support. In recent history, Microsofts Office dominance has given the company the power to effectively blacklist rival platforms by withholding Office support or, failing that, to properly document its de facto standard file formats.
Apples OS X, for instance, has long been labeled as being so dependent on Microsofts port of Office for Mac that the cancellation of the product would mean doom for Apples platform. Recently, however, Apple moved to bolster significantly the enterprise viability of its OS X platform by returning to the office suite space with full force with the release of iWork 08, complete with a new spreadsheet application to join its word processing and presentation offerings.
The desktop ambitions of Linux have been similarly buoyed by the continued progress of the cross-platform friendly duo of OpenOffice.org and StarOffice, the latter of which recently joined the equally cross-platform Firefox Web browser in Google Pack, Googles software distribution tool for Windows.
Whats more, the success of Apples iPhone, and the buzz surrounding the One Laptop Per Child projects XO notebook is drawing new attention to the possibilities of non-PC form factor computing devices. Typical fat-client office applications cant work on machines like these, but an emerging crop of rich Web-based applications from Google and other smaller Web 2.0 firms appear to offer a solid way forward.
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However, while the wave of new application activity that 2007 has brought us promises to empower enterprises to choose the platforms and tools that best address their needs, theres no easy answer for maintaining interoperability between the entrenched Windows/Office establishment and the spectrum of new platforms and applications that are becoming available.
On one hand, the Open Document Format demands of Massachusetts and other government bodies have begun to bear fruit, prompting Microsoft—which once insisted that de facto standardization was enough—to approach standardization bodies such as ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and Ecma International with hat in hand. Whats more, there are projects underway that will add support for Microsofts new Office Open XML format to OpenOffice.org and older versions of MS Office.
On the other hand, its the document formats that Microsoft is not offering up for standards body approval—the binary formats in which every Office version up to 2007 stored their documents—that pose the greatest interoperability challenges for iWork, OpenOffice.org, Google Apps Premier Edition and any other application suite intended to horn in on MS Offices territory.
Nailing the file formatting fidelity issue is vitally important to the success of these Office alternatives, as the platform flexibility benefits that come with admitting multiple office applications into an organization can be erased by niggling formatting inconsistencies.
Moving to standardize on a better-specified and more broadly supported document format, such as the already ISO-standard Open Document Format, is a partial solution to the document interoperability problem, and multiple plug-ins are now available for bringing ODF support to Office. However, the breadth of partners and customers with which enterprises exchange documents means that document format transitions cant be made in a vacuum.
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As a result, ODF-backing vendors will have to do a better job decrypting Microsofts binary formats—and this challenge may mean pursuing new routes toward this goal.
Read here why no ISO for Microsoft means little.
One things for certain, however: Given the major interface and default file format changes that Microsoft brought to its Office 2007—the undisputed "establishment" productivity suite—escaping change all together simply isnt an option.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.
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