Document Format Dispute Spills into the Open

The ODF, Microsoft and others are grappling with the question of what is most important when it comes to format choice.

The recent decision by the Open Document Foundation to substitute the World Wide Web Consortium's Compound Document Format in place of the format it was set up to promote, the Open Document Format, has sparked a contentious debate over what shape the format should take.

Open document advocates are debating fundamental questions about whether there should be a single document format or multiple formats that interoperate, and the relative importance of format and applications.

"At the core of our dissatisfaction with the ODF is its supporters' fundamental view that interoperability is an application thing and not a format thing. Our view is that if there is to be a Universal Document Format, the format must be the nexus of interoperability," said Sam Hiser, vice president of OpenDocument Foundation, explaining the move away from ODF.

As such, he said, the Foundation felt that the ODF was writing itself into history as a "me-too proprietary, application-tied specification with no intention to provide the market requirement of universal interoperability. ODF is therefore a sideline drama, only useful insofar as it has provided a foil for [Microsoft's] OOXML [Office Open XML]."

But Jason Matusow, director of corporate standards for Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., completely disagreed with that assessment, telling eWEEK that document formats provide the most choice for consumers and producers of software, and that the value of office automation technologies is not in the format, but in the applications.


Massachusetts throws its weight behind Office Open XML and the Open Document Format. Click here to read more.

"The Foundation and other ODF supporters have been saying that there should be only one format. Yet, when it comes down to the real world of meeting their needs, even the organization that has a charter to promote ODF decided that a different format was better for it," he told eWEEK.

And that, to Matusow, is the rub: The OpenDocument Foundation's needs are different from Adobe's, which are different from IBM's, Sun's, Microsoft's or any of Microsoft's more than 30,000 ISV partners.

With regard to the W3C's Compound Document Format, Matusow said that, as with any other document format, Microsoft is encouraging software producers to consider the needs of their customers and the applications they are producing.

"CDF is XHTML [Extensible HTML]-based, and by definition XHTML and HTML are very popular. If this format works for specific customers and applications, great. If not, there are many others to choose from," he said.

Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards for IBM, in Armonk, N.Y., expressed unwavering support for ODF and a belief that it offers the best chance for widespread adoption.

IBM, which supports ODF in its Symphony suite, a free rival to Microsoft Office, "continues to believe that ODF is the industry's best bet for moving to a truly open and interoperable document format," Sutor said.

Some members of the ODF Alliance—a coalition of global organizations that includes many of Microsoft's Linux and open-source foes like Corel, IBM,, Oracle and Red Hat, and whose stated goal is to enable governments to have direct management and control over their documents—are currently struggling to understand exactly what the Foundation's concerns are.


Why did Microsoft accuse the ODF Alliance of not "enabling choice"? Read more here.

David LeDuc, director of public policy at the Software & Industry Information Association, a original founding member of the Alliance, told eWEEK that both the Alliance and the SIIA would like to know more about the Foundation's issues with ODF.

"My understanding of the Foundation is that they are not a member organization, but a small group run by a handful of folks. To be frank, we are quite surprised by the recent remarks from people at the Foundation, since support for ODF seems to be hitting a high point all around the world," he said.


But Mark Blafkin, vice president for public affairs at ACT (Association for Competitive Technology), in Washington, said he believes that any policy that mandates a single document format for an entire government will inevitably limit the flexibility, choices and ability of that government to achieve its goals over the long term, regardless of whether it is ODF, Open XML, .DOC or RTF.

The OpenDocument Foundation decided to throw its weight behind the W3C's CDF because it felt that was better suited than ODF for Web-resident documents from Web 2.0 and other hosted application providers, Blafkin said, because ODF limits sharing of its files with Microsoft Office applications.


To read about why Microsoft accused IBM of limiting choice for interoperability and standards, click here.

"This is not to say that ODF is a 'bad' standard. It wouldn't have the support that it does if it was awful. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all governments and users around the world," Blafkin said. "If organizations care about compatibility with existing Microsoft Office documents, this is probably not the best solution for them. If they care about Web2.0 compatibility, it might not be the right format for them either."


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