Sun Readies ODF Plug-In

Final Release Will Facilitate Conversion of Microsoft Word Documents

Sun microsystems will release a preview version of its OpenDocument Format plug-in that facilitates two-way conversion of Microsoft Word documents to ODF in February, with the final release expected in April.

The technology, known as the StarOffice 8 Conversion Technology Preview plug-in application for Microsoft Office 2003, will be made available as a free download. The announcement comes less than a week after Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., and its partners finished work on the Open XML Translator, which is an add-on to Microsoft Word and available for download and use at no cost.

Microsoft first announced last July that it had set up the Translator project on SourceForge so as to create a series of tools that allow translation between ODF and its Open XML file format, the source code for which would be made available under the BSD license.

The announcement from Sun, of Santa Clara, Calif., comes hot on the heels of news that Microsofts goal of getting governments across the globe to embrace its Office Open XML format has hit roadblocks both in the United States and abroad.

In the United States, legislation was introduced in Texas and Minnesota the week of Feb. 5 to mandate the adoption of open document formats that will essentially preserve all documents in an open, XML-based file format that is interoperable among diverse internal and external platforms and applications.

These new legislative moves follow the decision by Massachusetts to switch to ODF for its official documents, with sources telling eWeek that even more states are likely to follow suit if these bills pass. In fact, the ODF Alliance reports that Bloomington, Ind., has already moved to the format, while government leaders from California and Wisconsin have spoken publicly on the value of open standards and/or ODF.

Like Microsofts Translator, Suns converter will initially work only with text documents, though both the Microsoft and Sun development teams are working on modules for spreadsheets and presentations. Sun officials expect to offer full support for spreadsheet and presentation documents in April.

The Executive Department of the commonwealth of Massachusetts is currently using the StarOffice converter to meet the compliance date for the start of a phased migration to ODF.

"Organizations can now consider switching to the OpenDocument Format while protecting employees needing assistive devices only supported by legacy Microsoft software," said Rich Green, Suns executive vice president of software. "ODF is important because it ensures documents will still be readable long into the future, while allowing a wide choice of proprietary and open-source software to work with the documents."

Andy Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove and editor of the standards blog, said the existence of two plug-ins will bring a new dynamic into the competition between Office Open XML and ODF-based products.

Current Office users will be able to stay with their existing version of Office and choose whichever plug-in they like best or upgrade to either Office 2007 or to one of the many ODF-based proprietary and open-source offerings, Updegrove said.

"In an ironic twist, training staff to convert from an existing version of Office to an ODF-compliant product, such as OpenOffice or StarOffice, might require less training, and related costs, than an upgrade to Office 2007," Updegrove said.

"Thats due to the similarity between many ODF products and the current version of Office, in contrast to the dramatic differences that exist between Office 2007 and its predecessors," Updegrove said.

Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, a group that promotes and advances the use of ODF as the primary document format for governments, said the plug-in will allow users to standardize their workflows on ODF and choose between multiple implementations and suppliers going forward.