OASIS accepts OpenDocument

A Canadian XML co-creator says developers might find it easier to create novel applications now that the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) has approved the OpenDocument file format.

OASIS, the Web-services standards consortium, recently announced that it has accepted the final version of OpenDocument, an XML-based file format that should spell simpler development among coding pros, according to Tim Bray, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Vancouver-based director of Web technologies and one of the co-creators of the evermore ubiquitous XML language.

Thanks to OpenDocument, “it is relatively straightforward now for programmers to write code to make use of information in office documents,” Bray said.

OpenDocument essentially frees the file format from specific applications or operating systems, so developers need not learn all about the underpinnings of various programs to build apps atop them. OASIS said OpenDocument applies to text-based files, spreadsheets, charts and graphics.

The file format’s XML base makes it so flexible, Bray said. “Another benefit of XML that doesn’t get enough attention is it makes it relatively straightforward to handle text in all the world’s character sets.”

OpenDocument is unique among file formats in that it’s both open and standardized. Bray explained that each version of the format is stable. A company like Sun can’t come along and change aspects of OpenDocument. Only OASIS can update it version by version. Proprietary format creators, by contrast, can amend their technologies whenever they choose.

“There are no legal encumbrances whatsoever to the use of this format,” Bray said of OpenDocument. “If you want to build an IT system using this, there’s no need to consult a lawyer or worry about possible infringement on patents, copyrights or trademarks.”

According to James Governor, IT industry analyst at RedMonk, OpenDocument breaks down some of the barriers developers face with other supposedly open file formats. “XML doesn’t always mean open,” he said in a press statement. “You can hide a lot in a file format. OpenDocument represents an opportunity to ensure truly open file formats for productivity applications.”

Explaining why XML doesn’t always mean open, as Governor said, Bray described the hurdles that developers sometimes face with company- or app-specific file formats. He said that even though a file format is built on a standard XML backbone, the purveyor of a particular version could muddle the header descriptions, making it tough for developers to use.

The purveyor could also change the format whenever it chooses, making it hard for developers to keep current. And the purveyor could press patents and copyrights pertaining to the format, which means licensing fees. “It would also mean no open-source software could ever be written to use it,” Bray said.

OpenDocument originated at Sun, Bray said, and Sun has been using the file format in its own productivity applications. OpenDocument is built into the OpenOffice open-source suite of desktop apps, and it’s built into StarOffice, Sun’s OpenOffice iteration.

OASIS said OpenDocument would apply to file types beyond word processing, graphics and spreadsheets down the line. Bray said he couldn’t predict how people would use OpenDocument in the future. He said it’s up to the IT industry to discover new ways of employing the technology.

XML is becoming the substructure of choice for applications. Microsoft Corp. has announced that XML will support the default file format in its upcoming Office 12 productivity app suite. Known as Open XML, this Microsoft-specific edition will apply to word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, respectively.

The software giant says it’s answering users’ calls for “open, royalty-free, published file format specifications” that are also backward-compatible with previous Microsoft file formats, according to an Open XML backgrounder.

Microsoft expects Office 12 to be ready late next year.

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