Microsoft has announced that it is to sponsor an open source project to bridge the worlds of Open Document Format and Open XML file formats.
Open Document Format (ODF) is the document file format used by the cross-platform open source suite of office applications maintained by Sun Microsystems, and Open XML is Microsoft’s alternative, and some might say competing, document format.
Freely available on the web, the OpenOffice.org open source suite of office productivity tools mirrors the functionality found in Microsoft Office by providing a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation program (Impress), a database program (Base), a vector graphics editor (Draw), and a tool for creating mathematical formulae (Math).
Documents created using these tools are stored natively in OASIS ODF for Office Applications (ODF for short). Approved as an OASIS standard in May 2005, and currently under development with the ISO standards body, ODF offers an XML-based alternative to the proprietary document formats generally used by organizations today, and has the backing of some of the IT industry’s biggest names, including IBM, Novell, and Sun.
The Open XML formats were developed to support existing and future Microsoft Office functionality, and are considered by many to be in competition with ODF; but in reality, the Open XML and ODF file formats have been created with different uses in mind. The Open XML formats were designed to accommodate new features and functions coming up in the next release of Microsoft Office, due sometime in 2007. ODF, on the other hand, was designed to accommodate traditional file exchange, records management, and collaboration scenarios in a non-proprietary manner.
In many ways, we have all been here before. Back in the 1960s, we had the development of American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) and Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code (EBCDIC) – the latter being devised by IBM for its proprietary mainframe and minicomputer systems. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, we had a world war on the desktop between Microsoft, Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland, IBM, and others. Of course, Microsoft won those battles, and to placate the industry and offer some level of cross-platform interoperability, the Rich Text Format (RTF) was devised.
A proprietary document format in its own right, RTF was developed by Microsoft in 1992 to facilitate the interchange of text and graphics, and is widely supported by many desktop application packages today. Fifteen years on, and RTF is still used happily by organizations to exchange documents between different word processing applications and computing platforms.
Times change, and so it was inevitable that one day XML-based file formats would enter the world of desktop productivity applications. Things came to a head in 2005, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – egged-on by Sun Microsystems, IBM, and five US national library associations – decided to opt for ODF as the standard for all official documents and records. Then, in June 2006, the Belgian Government announced that all federal agencies must start using software that can read and write ODF documents.
With other European governments and public bodies appearing to follow suit, Microsoft had to come up with a solution: enter the Open XML Translator project. The Microsoft press release said that the company was expanding on its customer-focused commitment to interoperability, and that the project was initiated as a response to government requests for interoperability with ODF.
To some this story might appear to have a happy ending, but this is not certain. ODF is all about ‘content exchange’ and ‘readability,’ whereas Open XML is more about ‘information exchange’ and ‘flexibility’. The differences might be subtle, but they are significant.
Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (www.butlergroup.com)