OpenDocument alliance set to roll

A group of more than 35 U.S. and international IT vendors,organizations, academic institutions and industry bodies is due toannounce the formation of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) AllianceFriday.

The new body, whose initial members include IBM Corp., OracleCorp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., will focus on further evangelizingthe OpenDocument electronic file format.

Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known asOpenDocument, is being developed by the OASIS standards body as anXML (extensible markup language) file format. The format coverstext, spreadsheets and other document types created by officeproductivity suites. Supporters of OpenDocument include offeringsfrom open-source players and Sun’s StarOffice and IBM’s Workplacesoftware suites.

The ODF Alliance has formed under the auspices of tradeassociation the Software & Information Industry Association(SIIA). Other IT vendors in the alliance include Corel Corp., EMCCorp., Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. The initial member roster listsa variety of organizations from France, India, Japan and the U.K.,according to Ken Wasch, SIIA president.

If such a body had existed last year, it’s possible theorganization could have provided much needed support to anembattled U.S. chief information officer (CIO), Wasch said in aphone interview Thursday.

In September of last year, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinnfinalized a policy for state agencies to develop a gradual plan formigration to OpenDocument, beginning Jan. 1, 2007. The plan wouldinvolve phasing out the state’s use of Microsoft Corp.’s Officesoftware suite. With Massachusetts one of the very first U.S.states to espouse such a decision, the move placed Quinn underintense public scrutiny and political pressure.

Quinn quit his job in early January after becoming in his ownwords “a lightning rod” with respect to any IT initiative underconsideration by the Commonwealth. “A tragedy happened inMassachusetts,” Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun,said in a phone interview Thursday. “Cynicism allowed a good man tobe hounded out of his job for no reason.”

Quinn’s permanent replacement Louis Gutierrez has alreadypledged to continue the state’s move towards OpenDocument.

If a similar situation was to occur now, the ODF alliance wouldhelp to support a CIO with white papers and case studies ofsuccessful ODF adoptions as ammunition to counter any naysayers,according to Wasch. One of the alliance’s missions is to “removethe FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] factor of adoptingOpenDocument,” he said.

The American Library Association decided to join the ODFalliance at the inception of the organization to ensure that thevoice of libraries and non-profit organizations is represented,according to Patrice McDermott, ALA deputy director, office ofgovernment relations. “It’s a natural alliance for us because thegoal of the ODF alliance is in tune with our goal to provide accessto information,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “Thealliance is a very positive development.”

However, one issue the ALA is very concerned about is whethersoftware using OpenDocument will be compatible with existingcomputer applications used by people with disabilities, McDermottsaid.

She added that she’s been assured that such issues will beresolved by the end of this year. “If it’s not solved over the nextnine months, we would have to withdraw from the alliance,”McDermott said. “We can’t be party to something that doesn’tprovide access to all.”

The plan to put the ODF alliance together came about when anumber of vendors met at IBM’s offices in Armonk, New York, inearly November last year, according to Sun’s Phipps. “We’ve reacheda nexus as we move from binary file formats to XML.”

Wasch at SIIA agrees with Phipps. He believes that the alliancehas come together at a “serendipitous time” as user demand for anopen document format increases and major IT vendors are embracingthe OpenDocument format. There’s also a proliferation of devices onwhich users are creating electronic documents. “More documents arecreated by thumb on BlackBerrys and PDAs [personal digitalassistants] than by fingers on desktops,” Wasch said. “We need tomake sure that documents are independent of the application thatcreated them.”

Microsoft meanwhile continues to tout its proposed Open XMLspecification and has declared publicly its preference of a numberof open document standards to flourish in the future, not justOpenDocument. “Is Microsoft invited to the ODF alliance?Absolutely,” Wasch said. “The door is open. Ultimately, I thinkthey will adopt ODF.”

The ODF Alliance’s Web site is set to go live Friday at this Website . The organization welcomes any interested party to join,according to Sun’s Phipps. An individual from SIIA will shortly benamed to head the alliance and the members of the body’s steeringcommittee will also be identified, Wasch said.