Office Formats Fail to Communicate

By Tiffany Maleshefski  |  Posted 2007-08-10

Office Formats Fail to Communicate

The first question a company asks when presented with a Microsoft Office alternative is how well the software supports Microsofts de facto standard file formats.

Based on eWEEK Labs testing experience with productivity applications based on the Open Document Format standard (the most prominent of which are Suns StarOffice and its open-source sibling, OpenOffice), document fidelity consistently falls short of 100 percent, and thats not good enough for most companies and organizations.

According to Gary Edwards, founding president of the OpenDocument Foundation, OpenOffice and other Open Document-based applications can do a better job interoperating, if only the vendors that steer the format would allow them to. Edwards foundation, a nonprofit that funds individuals in pursuit of developing software standards, had been involved with the Massachusetts Open Document Format pilot study, and had participated in the OASIS Open Document Technical Committee from its early days.

Despite sharing the same long-term goals for interoperability, Edwards said that Sun, which oversees the committee, isnt doing enough to champion the changes necessary to implement a foolproof Open Document Format. According to Edwards, Sun insists that the development of ODF be limited to those features supported and implemented by its open-source suite, Edwards, on the other hand, favors the admission of Microsofts Office-specific extensions, if thats whats required to achieve complete conversion fidelity.

"The issue of a base-line implementation with proprietary extensions above the base line has long been a concern of the ODF TC," Edwards wrote in his blog, Open Stack, on April 6.

"What we tried to do is embrace and implement Open XML technologies and methods within the base line so that proprietary extensions could be pushed up above the base, addressing those needs where there was no other alternative but to fork. The quality and depth of the base line defines the fidelity of interoperability and transformation. The minute you fork from the base line, the measure of interoperability and transformative quality declines. So the ODF designers try to provide markets with a volume base line that meets all of their common and expected interoperability use cases.

"There is no question that market categories and vertical industry implementations will need to introduce extensions," he continued.

"These extensions can be proprietary or open. We hope they are open, but there are many legitimate situations where a closed or boxed set of extensions to ODF make sense—proprietary or not."

Sun, however, argues that its better to rely on the experience and knowledge of ODF vendors to resolve inconsistencies between the Microsoft and Open Document Formats than to fall back on proprietary extensions. "[The OpenDocument Foundation has] a different understanding of how interoperability should be achieved," said Erwin Tenhumberg, community development and marketing manager for Sun Microsystems.

To read about a Sun plug-in the brings support to Microsoft Office, click here.

Sun believes the most viable way to continue developing the Open Document Format, according to Tenhumberg, is to keep building from the ground up. Standardizing random proprietary extensions will make the process messy and complicate matters, since most of the applications wouldnt be able to use the information, said Tenhumberg, who co-chairs the OASIS Open Document Format Adoption Committee.

The way Tenhumberg sees it, there are two dominating philosophical approaches to adding features to the Open Document Format. The first is to seek out supporting vendors, such as IBM, Sun, Novell, Adobe, Corel, among others, to implement the required features fostering interoperability among applications.

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Office Formats Fail to


The second, and the one Edwards subscribes to, is to allow the inclusion of proprietary extensions to implement the needed feature sets. This idea, Tenhumberg said, "might be faster to get through, but by doing so wont achieve interoperability because its not based on something ODF-specific … but on proprietary extensions."

The Da Vinci code

The opendocument foundation has put its ideas regarding ODF interoperability into practice in the form of a plug-in for providing interoperability between Microsofts binary formats and ODF, complete with what Edwards said is a higher conversion fidelity throughout a round-trip document exchange process.

The conversion engine of the groups plug-in, named "Da Vinci" for its ability to crack the code of what Edwards describes as "secret relationships" within Microsoft Word that only Microsofts application can understand, works similarly to the OOXML (Office Open XML) conversion plug-in that Microsoft is sponsoring.

"Internally, all MS Word documents have an in-memory-binary-representation [IMBR]," Edwards said. "A .doc binary document is simply a dump of IMBR to file. The reverse occurs on loading into MS Word. Whenever a conversion process is triggered in MS Word, the IMBR is first converted to something very special and 100 percent internal. We call it MS-RTF because it looks like public RTF, but its not."

However, according to Edwards, for the foundations conversion approach to fulfill its potential, ODF Version 1.2 (which is currently slated for late 2007) would have to include provisions for working with the proprietary extensions that appear in Microsoft-formatted documents. It was here that the foundations efforts hit a brick wall.

"They opposed making any changes to OpenOffice that would enable the high level of round-trip fidelity demanded by MS Office bound workgroup-workflow business processes," Edwards said. "The external plug-in proposal they pursued is unable to crack the bound business processes."

Without the needed buy-in from Sun, the foundations once promising plug-in now sits idle, and Edwards, after sitting nearly five years on the OASIS Open Document Technical Committee, has retreated from his plug-in efforts.

"In April of 2007, we finally gave up on our efforts to improve ODF interoperability," Edwards said. "Sun has successfully blocked or otherwise neutralized all efforts to improve ODF interoperability with Microsoft documents, applications and bound processes." He added that the foundation will now begin to put its efforts into interoperability as it pertains to client-side servers.

"Now that we know the plug-in architecture can convert both Microsoft and Sun applications at the file format level, the quest for a universal file format looks closer than ever before. Whats really needed is a standards process not controlled by big vendors with big applications and big market share appetites," Edwards said. "Its up to the governments to force Microsoft to do this or that. We cant do what the marketplace wants us to do."

If the marketplace is given the authority to dictate the future of the Open Document Format, according to Edwards, it can only result in a "rip out and replace" agenda that governments simply wont get behind, making the fate of Open Document vulnerable.

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