Sun Microsystems ODF Plug-in for Microsoft Office wont usher in an era of universal document interoperability, but eWEEK Labs believes it is the best option currently available for adding Open Document Format support to Offices massive installed base. The plug-in, which Sun debuted on July 4 in the form of a freely downloadable 30MB installation package, enables users to read, edit and save ODF-formatted word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation documents using the 2000, XP, and 2003 versions of Microsoft Office.
Unlike the Microsoft-sponsored Open XML/ODF Translator project, the Excel and PowerPoint components of which are still in development, Suns freely-downloadable ODF Plug-in is a bona fide shipping product—complete with optional paid support from Sun. Also in contrast to the Microsoft-sponsored translator, which was developed from scratch and uses XSLT, a language for transforming XML documents into other XML documents, Suns plug-in is backed by proven document conversion code from OpenOffice.org. However, file conversion with Suns ODF plug-in works differently than in OpenOffice.org, as the plug-ins import and export filters work with Offices built-in text converter to get the job done, yielding slightly different results than when I used OpenOffice.orgs converter alone.
Overall, I found file conversion in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to be on par with the document conversion in OpenOffice.org, but, as with OpenOffice.org, conversion isnt perfect. I did run into slight, yet noticeable, formatting issues. For instance, one of the ODF presentation documents I opened, modified and saved as a PowerPoint file lost some of its shaded regions in the translation. When I saved the same modified presentation in ODF format, the shading stayed, but the document came through with some misaligned text.
While Sun has done a good job integrating its plug-in with Word, adding ODF to Words standard file type dialog and letting users set ODF as Words default format, the plug-in isnt as well integrated with PowerPoint and Excel. With these applications, users trigger the plug-in instead through "import to ODF" or "export to ODF" in the applications file menus and tool bars. Also, I found the plug-ins knack for triggering multiple "Are you sure you want to do this?" dialogs each time I saved or opened a document somewhat grating.
I encountered some bugs in Suns packaging of the application. Specifically, in my tests with Office 2003, the installation process did not make the needed DLLs available to the application. According to Sun officials, this bug will be fixed in the next release of the converter, v.1.1, scheduled within the next few months. On the plus side, the plug-in doesnt have additional requirements, such as the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack or .Net Framework, both of which the Microsoft-sponsored plug-in demands.
Version 1.0 warts aside, Suns plug-in can play an important role in broadening interoperability. As OpenOffice.org and other ODF-based office applications become adopted more broadly (by the state of Massachusetts, for starters), Microsoft Office users will want the flexibility to communicate with partners or customers using these applications. A bit of advice, though: When collaborating on complex documents, its best to stick to the same application and format.
Anyone whos working with partners or customers running OpenOffice.org or another ODF-based office application will find this plug-in a worthwhile download. Its free, (with Sun offering additional support at extra cost) and the plug-ins installation is easy, so it makes sense to visit www.sun.com/software/star/openoffice and begin getting familiar with the software.