No ISO for Microsoft Means Little

Opinion: ODF advocates are getting ahead of themselves by celebrating Microsoft's ISO failure.

Microsofts ISO standardization ambitions for its Office Open XML file format have hit a rough patch, as OOXML recently failed to garner enough votes for fast-track ratification.

ODF (OpenDocument Format) advocates are pleased, but theyre fooling themselves if they think that the lack of ISO standardization for OOXML is going to put any kind of a dent in the dominance that Microsoft holds over the office productivity market.

I found the comments on the no-vote from Marino Marcich, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based ODF Alliance, particularly telling, "ODF remains the document format of choice for governments, as it is now being considered for use by countries in every major region of the globe."

Great, ODF is king of being considered. However, as we saw in Massachusetts, consideration and deployment are two very different things. In order for ODF-based alternatives truly to pick up steam, organizations need to be able to edit Word .DOC files in OpenOffice Writer or Google Docs and save that file back to Word format without losing any formatting.

However, thats not how things work today. For instance, here at eWEEK, we use a story template in Word format, which includes margins that map to our column sizes in print. Google Docs does not include support for page margins, which means that my margins dont show up in Docs.

Fair enough, but in addition to not displaying this formatting data, Google Docs strips the margins out of my document all together, so that when someone else opens the file in Word, they wont see the original margins, either.

If Google Docs doesnt grok portions of the Word files it encounters, why cant Googles application just leave those parts of the file be, allow me to tweak the text and pass along the rest of the bits back into the Word file I output?

This is more or less the approach that the OpenDocument Foundation has been pushing for ODF—to modify the format such that it could pass along nonstandard bits of an office document rather than strip them out.

Sun, the primary sponsor of OpenOffice and arguably the biggest gun in the ODF effort, disagrees, and is dead-set on the "translate it to ODF or strip it" approach. In many cases, this works well—our Word template, for instance, works excellently in OpenOffice.

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Expert: Open XML loses standards battle. Click here to read more.

However, OpenOffices Microsoft Office conversion engine isnt perfect, and formatting-preserving compatibility mode for OpenOffice would be a great addition.

Even better—and easier to implement, I imagine—would be for Google to adopt this approach for its Docs and Spreadsheets. Googles Apps are so much more lightly featured than Microsoft Office that they are particularly prone to stripping out formatting.

I understand the reticence of the ODF-backers toward leaving proprietary bits from Microsoft in the files that their applications generate, but until these products nail the compatibility issue, ODF pilots will continue to run aground.

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