Open Document Format: The Inevitable Format

I came across this article in the Red Hat Magazine today which largely reflects my views on the debate.

For those of you not aware of the ongoing debate, Microsoft’s Office formats are essentially the “standard” document format since most people use Microsoft Office. But the Open Document Format (ODF) is a better alternative that’s gaining more and more attention. It’s not the proprietary property of a single company, nor is it governed by any single organization. It is a truly open format that any software developer could implement in an application. The most notable office suite which uses the format as the default is OpenOffice.

Microsoft can and does change it’s format whenever it wants (naturally – it is theirs), and because they have such a stranglehold on the market, everyone is forced to follow suite. Microsoft wants you to upgrade to Windows Vista and Office 2007 because that’s how they make their money, and as a result their backwards compatibility is intentionally poor. It only needs to be backwards compatible enough to prevent people from rebelling. A bit of grumbling isn’t enough to overpower the complacency and inertia of most people.

That’s why I’m grumbling a lot.

The obvious downside is that, unless you keep upgrading to the latest version of Microsoft Office (which every now and then might involve a forced operating system upgrade too), you’re going to have trouble reading your documents (or authoring documents that other people can read).

T. Colin Dodd points out in the article…

The unshakable argument in favor of using ODF for public documents is the fact that it’s a better deal for citizens and taxpayers in the long run. Using closed-standard, proprietary software for public documents is like buying the proverbial $10,000 toilet seat, or prohibiting the federal government from negotiating better drug prices with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of Medicaid and Medicare patients, or trying to feed an army and rebuild a warzone by awarding secret, non-competitive, no-bid contracts. It’s non-competitive in the worst sense.

Many government’s around the world are starting to realize this.

Japan recently required that all its ministries contract with software vendors whose applications are built around open standards. Brazil, Poland, Malaysia, Italy, Korea, Norway, France, The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Dehli State Government in India have all made commitments in principle to adopting the ODF and, perhaps more importantly, recognizing the imperative of using open standards.

But worse than a Microsoft Office propriety format is Microsoft’s new “OpenXML” format which is not actually open in any meaningful way. The documentation is over 6,000 pages long, full of Microsoft-Office specific functionality and backwards compatibility which effectively makes their “open format”, for all practical intents and purposes, only implementable in Microsoft Office. It’s a business strategy to fend off the ODF, not a truly open format. And if they succeed in doing so and the ODF dies, they’ll have no reason to maintain an “open standard” any longer.

Anyways, I’m now happily running OpenOffice on all the computers I use. There are many other applications available that support the ODF format, many of which are free as in freedom and free as in price (like OpenOffice).

If you haven’t tried it before, I encourage you to give OpenOffice a try! It does read/write Microsoft Office documents for the most part, in terms of document-sharing with people still stuck in the cave, but it is free (“libre”) software and the ODF Format is the default.


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