Quest to create single ‘office docs’ file format in jeopardy

A group formed to promote the Open Document Format (ODF) has changed directions, focusing its energies instead on a document format governed by the W3C, a move that throws a wrench into the already acrimonious business of creating one global file format for office documents.

The OpenDocument Foundation was formed five years ago to push the adoption of a universal file format for documents across software, hardware and devices. Until recently, the group was focused on the technology on which it based its existence: ODF, which is overseen by OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) and has been approved as a global standard by the International Organization for Standardization.

However, a recent blog posting by Sam Hiser, vice president and director of business affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, outlines why the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) Compound Document Format (CDF) is a more viable universal format than ODF.

The requirements include full compatibility with legacy Microsoft formats, including Office Open XML (OOXML), the format Microsoft created for its Office suite that it is promoting as a rival standard to ODF. Other requirements CDF meets better than ODF include convergence of desktops, servers and devices; cross-platform portability; and vendor independence, he wrote in his post.

In a phone interview Monday, Hiser said the OpenDocument Foundation began losing support for ODF in February when it became clear to them that Sun Microsystems, one of the biggest public supporters of the format, was more interested in making its own StarOffice suite — and OpenOffice, the open-source software it’s based on — interoperable with Microsoft Office formats than making ODF work with the Office formats. Hiser said he suspects Sun’s notorious nearly $2 billion payout from Microsoft over Java and other interoperability efforts may have something to do with the company’s apparent disinterest in making ODF interoperable with OOXML, the format Microsoft created as the default file format for Office 2007.

“All Sun cares about is its application,” he said. “Sun never thought of the format as being more important than the application. Sun’s position has always been that interoperability with Microsoft formats is outside the scope of ODF.”

Sun said these charges are simply not true, according to Doug Johnson, manager of the Corporate Standards Group at Sun. He said that Sun supports ODF across many of its technology platforms, and that the company remains committed to ensuring the interoperability of ODF with any rival document formats.

Still, Hiser said lackluster support for ODF within the OASIS committee that is supposed to promote it has caused problems for promoting the adoption of ODF among enterprises and government agencies and is not consistent with the group’s mission to promote a universal file format. The decision to push CDF rather than ODF means the OpenDocument Foundation will be changing its name and most likely transforming itself into another company or organization, he added, though he declined to say what the group’s plans are.

Hiser acknowledged that ODF supporters are angry with the group because of its change of heart about ODF. Indeed, Andrew Updegrove, partner and founder of Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston and a vocal ODF supporter, wrote in an e-mail Monday that “it’s a shame that a group that was expressly formed for the purpose of supporting ODF is now actively working against the standard — especially given the fact that its tax exemption is based upon supporting that same standard.”

He dismissed the group’s efforts as “not getting much notice” and said ODF continues to have broad support across the world. “I think that there is far more to be gained by building on the global efforts already so well advanced than by pursuing another path,” Updegrove said.

IBM, another ardent supporter of ODF, would not directly comment on Hiser’s post but said the company will continue to support ODF as the sole standard for global documents, said Bob Sutor, vice president of standards and open source for IBM.

“We see ODF as offering the most promise and the best chance at widespread adoption,” he said. IBM supports ODF in its Symphony suite, a free rival to Microsoft Office.

Microsoft, naturally, sees the friction within the ODF community as a boon for its own efforts to push OOXML and stave off Office competitors. In a blog posting,, Jason Matusow, director of corporate standards for Microsoft, wrote that the new controversy over ODF proves it’s really the office applications, not the file formats, that matter. In that realm, he wrote, Microsoft continues to show innovation and add value for customers.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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