Microsoft says they will support ODF natively, join OASIS ODF committee?

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At various times in the three years in which I’ve been working on OpenDocument Format (ODF) adoption I’ve asked myself “What would success look like?”.

In full, success would mean that

  • consumers, governments, and businesses would recognize the value of open standards developed in a transparent, community-based, and collaborative way,
  • they would really use those standards, and ODF in particular,
  • different software providers would provide multiple, interoperable native implementations of ODF that run on several operating systems,
  • ODF could be set as the default “save” format in applications so that the number of ODF documents achieve critical mass and a network effect,
  • these software providers would all come together in a common standards effort in OASIS to continue to evolve ODF to meet everyone’s needs, both future and past, and
  • competition would be based on the quality of the product, adherence to standards, and value for the money instead of tired lock-in strategies around data formats.

ODF has made tremendous strides over the years but a lingering question has always been “What about Microsoft?”. Despite gestures involving converters and because of their heavy handed promotion of their own alternative OOXML/Open XML format, the ODF victory did feel like it was getting closer but was still tantalizingly in the future.

Maybe things have changed. We might be closer to ODF and open standards success today than we’ve ever been before.

From what I understand, Microsoft now plans to provide native read/write support for ODF 1.1 in an Office 2007 service pack within the next year, allow it to be set as the default format, and they will join the OASIS ODF technical committee.

If this is

  • a real and not an empty promise,
  • not a public relations stunt,
  • well executed in a timely manner according to their announced schedule,
  • not meant to only gain short term Office product sales or force upgrades,
  • a high quality and well performing implementation, and
  • a good faith OASIS participation intended to advance and not stall the development of ODF

then, well, ok!

There is no reason for more governments and organizations not to start mandating the use of ODF. If you are not using ODF today, you should put adoption plans in place.

Last Spring I said the following in a blog entry:

As I’ve said before, ODF is the future and that’s where we should be focusing our efforts. … The only thing we are all doing in the process now is speeding up or slowing down the eventual broad adoption of ODF. I’m for speeding up.

With OpenOffice.org, Lotus Symphony, KOffice, and now (presumably, fingers crossed) Microsoft Office, the ODF gas pedal just got slammed to the floor.

With this development let’s not forget that we still have a lot of work to do to reform and modernize the standards process, as OOXML illustrated so often and so well.

In the interest of providing a bit more to think about beyond what was evidently said on this, here are a few open questions:

  • What are the plans for supporting ODF 1.2, now reaching completion in OASIS?
  • Will it be extraordinarily easy for users to set ODF as the default save format so that this becomes regular practice for most people?
  • Will there eventually be backwards native support in versions of Office before 2007, or will people need to upgrade?
  • Hey, Apple, what about you? Let’s see you do this in iWork!

15 Comments

  1. It’s like changing from punch-cards to paper tape; or from VHS videotape to DVD.

    Yes, there were dominant vendors who made their fortunes from punch-cards and associated machinery.

    The open standards … ASCII for paper-tape, and ISO for DVD … took over from the proprietary standards.

    Fortunately, a certain employer of mine didn’t get stuck pushing punch-cards after their time had gone; and he’s still here and thriving.

    ISO26300 ODF XML now ? Here’s hoping.

  2. Timothy Briley

    “Microsoft says they will support ODF natively, join OASIS ODF committee?”

    Not to be overly suspicious, but this reminds of the old saying, “The most feared words a small IT company can hear is ‘Hi, I’m from Microsoft and we want to be your business partner'”!

  3. If Microsoft actually do this, I may suggest we buy a few copies of Office 2007 for our power users.

  4. Bob –

    the offical press release: http://www.microsoft.com/Presspass/press/2008/may08/05-21ExpandedFormatsPR.mspx

    a couple answers based on what I know …

    * What are the plans for supporting ODF 1.2, now reaching completion in OASIS? – 1.1 support in Office 2007 SP2, 1.2 support in Office 14
    * Will it be extraordinarily easy for users to set ODF as the default save format so that this becomes regular practice for most people? – you can set it as your default the same way you set .DOC vs .DOCX in Office 2007 today
    * Will there eventually be backwards native support in versions of Office before 2007, or will people need to upgrade? – Only Office 2007 support. The projects on SourceForge support Office 2003 and Office XP now and that is the support path for them
    * Hey, Apple, what about you? Let’s see you do this in iWork! – Amen!

    John

  5. @J Davies

    Can you explain your reasons?

    If you are currently running Office 2003 and Microsoft with this announcement ushers in a new golden age of interoperability (which no one expects) then I would say that buying all your users a free copy of OpenOffice would be the smart thing to do.

    On the other hand, if you are currently using something other than MS Office, what are the features that the power users desire that would make you buy Office 2007?

  6. Stephane Rodriguez

    “I may suggest we buy a few copies of Office 2007”

    It’s exactly what their announcement is about : to buy Office 2007 licenses to work with ODF files. More on my blog OOXML is defective by design.

  7. Matthew Flaschen

    I agree with your analysis. This is great news, but they have to follow through. In my opinion, they will. If they produce a poor native implementation, it is Microsoft that will be held accountable. This is just as, for instance, OpenOffice is held accountable for the occasional errors in their DOC implementations. Thus, Microsoft will probably need to produce a good implementation in the long run.

    In my opinion, this is actually why they previously had the level of indirection in the converter development. That way, the many failures of those can’t be blamed directly on Microsoft. But clearly the converters didn’t work from a PR point of view, so they’ve been forced to get serious about compliance.

    Finally, DVD is not an open format, though ASCII is.

  8. “Hey, Apple, what about you? Let’s see you do this in iWork!”

    Last year Prof. Rommel Feria started a petition to Apple:
    http://www.petitiononline.com/appleodf/petition.html

    This seems like a very good time for everyone to sign the petition and publicise it more widely.

  9. The versions of DVDs that you record your kids’ birthday parties, or archive your business records onto, are open standards (I think). At least, ISO9660 CDs are.

    The versions of DVDs that you rent from Blockbuster with the latest Disney Video aren’t an open standard.

    I understand the commercial reasons for that; even if it’s a bit of a pain when I want to teach the next generation about engineering and science. Kids’ birthday party videos it has to be.

    Hopefully the information that goes back and forth between governments and citizens is more like the ‘Kid’s Birthday Party’, rather then ‘Cinderella’.

    Vitally important, but not commercially valuable

  10. That’s essentially what they told us they would do in Atlanta two years ago, so no surprise. This is classic Nash Equilibrium marketing.

    Now the question is, how will they be treated? What kinds of preconditions will be ladled for cooperation?

    It is never a good idea to pull a plant up and look at its roots to see if it is growing.

  11. I had a little look at Nash Equilibrium on the Wikipedia; interesting.

    IBM and Microsoft cannot possibly collude on the price of something they both sell. Business Services, for example. There’d be an outcry.

    IBM and Microsoft have to agree on the price of something one sells and the other buys; processor chips for XBoxes, for example. But neither has to tell anyone else in the world what that price is.

    And IBM has to make its own mind up about whether it will sell OS/2 and/or Personal Computers. Those are history.

    Business moves on.

  12. @ Felix

    many of my users are still on MS Office 2000 which is not ideal but it does work. In an ideal world we would switch over to OpenOffice.org which most (if not all) of my users would be fine with. Unfortunately some users have used more advanced featured and additional applications which make working with OpenOffice difficult. In particular one has developed a quite sophisticated set of aircraft maintenance manuals which automatically maintains lists of effective pages (in multiple columns), indexes, tables of contents (all hyperlinked), all with section breaks, automatic page and paragraph numbering, Visio diagrams etc. these are then output to Adobe Acrobat for distribution.

    None of this cannot be done in OpenOffice, but when the documents are read in to OpenOffice, a lot of pagination, paragraph and page numbering issues appear. They can all be worked around, but if I don’t have to work around them I’d rather not.

    The other problem is customers who do insist on sending us .docx files and presumably ISO29500 files at some point in the future. These are frequently contracts and tender documents that need to be filled in on screen.

    So If I can give a couple of copies of MS Office to a few people who need it and give OpenOffice to everybody else I’ll be very happy. Otherwise I may end up in a situation where everybody has OpenOffice and a few people have MS Office.

    My major reasons for not changing to something else to date have been
    cost of MS office
    extending lock in
    difficulties for some users with Openoffice
    training required for whatever I choose to move people to (this is now worse for MS Office 2007 than Open Office)

    Hope this explains some of my reasoning.

  13. Timothy Briley

    > Not to be overly suspicious, but this reminds of the old
    > saying, “The most feared words a small IT company can
    > hear is ‘Hi, I’m from Microsoft and we want to be your
    > business partner’”!

    Well, that is what they used to say about IBM, when it was an often-sued monopolist and Microsoft either didn’t exist or was a tiddler.

    And they used to say it about the government, probably even before that.

    So your observation says nothing about Microsoft but a lot about your own age (or rather, inexperience) and fears.

    Still, one day you’ll be old enough to shake your head sadly when someone says:

    > Not to be overly suspicious, but this reminds of the old
    > saying, “The most feared words a small IT company can
    > hear is ‘Hi, I’m from Google and we want to be your
    > business partner’”!

  14. @Chris:

    Keep in mind the Nash equilibrium assumes perfect knowledge or trivial knowledge (cheap to obtain; cheap to verify). If the knowledge is unstable, so is the equilibrium. The point of the bitter butter battles and standards gaming is to create predictable instabilities. That is the game as played. My counter is one of tactics: be careful of using attack dogs since they tend to circle back to the hands holding the leash.

  15. I keep feeling that there are 2 sorts of document in the world.

    If you were writing the operations manual for a nuclear power station, you’d want the document to be legible and reviseable for at least 50 years, because that’s the design life of what you are building. For these kinds of documents, you’d like an international standard to guide how you record it; and ISO26300 ODF XML fits the bill very well.

    If you’re producing a sales pitch, then the document needs to be much ‘flashier’ than the power station ops manual; but it only has to last 3 months at most, since (win or lose) when you come to try to sell something to the same client next quarter, you’ll need a new presentation. For this kind of document, Microsoft Office seems to suit; but by the same token, there’s no reason why ISO should be asked to standardise it. I neither want nor need a standardised sales pitch.

    The knowledge that IBM has isn’t bad; but the mantra is ‘Lead the markets you choose to serve’. And IBM has chosen not to serve the Personal Computer, OS/2, and SmartSuite markets any longer.

    It’s moved alone the value chain, to higher-growth businesses, where the profits are.

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