Office Formats Fail to Communicate

Analysis: Critics say vendors such as Sun are not doing enough regarding interoperability to make the standard a viable competitor to Microsoft.

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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