Editor 31-May-06 -
Open Document
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For many years the anti-Microsoft contingent has wished for a free and open document standard competitive to Microsoft Office formats - a standard supported by governments and commerce. It's not quality or price that maintains Microsoft's monopoly, it's the Office document formats. To use them you have to buy Microsoft Office, and to run that you have to buy Windows (yes I know there's a Macintosh version).

Getting such a standard seemed pie in the sky, but surprise, such a standard has been developed by OASIS (O2) and promoted by the industry group ODF Alliance (O1). It's been certified as international standard ISO/IEC 26300 by ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) and it's strongly backed by IBM, Sun Microsystems, Adobe, and other major industry participants.

Open Document is real and a true international standard and this has Microsoft very upset. In particularly they are upset with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for deciding to store public documents in Open Document format so citizens could read them without having to buy Microsoft Office and Windows.

What came next was a massive torrent of political pressure, deception and outright lies attacking the decision. In particular it was claimed the Commonwealth was limiting people to using one document product, OpenOffice (free) / Star Office (cheap), from which the standard was contributed. Users of the popular Microsoft Office would be locked out.

This is entirely false. Already many products support Open Document, and within a few months every major word processor and spreadsheet except Microsoft Office will support Open Document. In fact there are already free third party plug-ins to enable Microsoft Office to read and write Open Document formats, particularly one by the ODF Alliance (announced and tested but not yet widely available).

The truth is Microsoft could easily add Open Document support to Office but they refuse to. They refuse to because wide acceptance of Open Document means an eventual end to their monopolies and the end of 80% plus profit margins on Windows and Office.

Why is this? Everyone's already standardized on Office. What about all those macros and automated documents Open Document can't handle due to Microsoft patents? It would be hugely expensive to convert all that stuff to Open Document macros and automation. Not cost effective at all.

The danger to Microsoft is real though, because we are at one of those inflection point thingies - Microsoft Office formats are doomed anyway. Commerce is contemplating, and in many cases already transitioning to, a new open data format called XML. XML is a completely non-proprietary open standard, and Open Document is 100% pure XML.

Microsoft wants everyone to wait for their standard, called Open XML, which isn't open at all but controlled by Microsoft and requires licensing. Microsoft promises licenses will be free (for now), but their licensing is deliberately incompatible with free and open source products (O3). The most significant competitors to Windows and Office are Linux and OpenOffice, both free and open source software. Can you say "monopoly"? I knew you could.

Microsoft has had their Open XML standard approved as a draft standard by European standards body ECMA (O4) over which they have a great deal of influence, but some analysts are saying more important ISO certification is now unlikely.

Meanwhile, governments outside the U.S. are lining up behind Open Document but within the U.S. people are waiting to see how much political damage Microsoft can inflict on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

- Andrew Grygus

Additional Reading

  • O1 - ODF Alliance
  • O2 - OASIS - Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.
  • O3 - eWeek - Open XML incompatible with GPL.
  • O4 - ECMA - Ecma Office Open XML File Formats Standard ? Intermediate Draft 1.3.

©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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