Update on sharing documents

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Three years ago (!) I wrote a post called “How do you share documents?” where I essentially said “When you give documents to others that you do not expect them to change, use PDF. If they need an updatable form, use ODF.”

I’m happy to report, at least within IBM, this document sharing strategy is really taking hold. I suspect it is true with many other organizations as well, though not all, of course.

Why is this happening? First of all, many people are moving away from Microsoft Office and therefore their document storage format is now more likely to be ODF, the Open Document Format, rather than the classic .doc, .ppt, and .xls. What is enabling them to move is the free availability of software like Lotus Symphony and OpenOffice.org. Moreover, these applications offer free PDF generation.

Newer versions of Microsoft Office offer PDF support and rather odd partial ODF support, but I don’t now have and have no plans to obtain any version of Office. I just don’t need it. Perhaps it might be my personal history fighting what I still consider the unnecessary OOXML specification, but I never, ever get sent an OOXML file from anyone inside or outside IBM. It takes surprisingly little education to convince people that using OOXML is a bad idea.

Looking at my own email, I would estimate that 10% of the attachments are either .doc or .ppt files, with the rest being ODF or PDF. For the moment, people often send both ODF and PDF, but for final presentations on conferences calls, it is almost always just PDF.

This kind of transformation takes time, but it is just a question of changing the network effect. Start by not sending modifiable document files when a PDF will do. Then start using ODF instead of Microsoft’s classic proprietary formats. Do it first in work groups or departments. Get some senior people to start using PDF and ODF. Others will follow their example and, little by little, you’ll see this scheme starting to take hold.

Don’t be afraid to make policy as in “All presentations delivered to senior management must be in PDF format.” You may lose some bells and whistles, but I suspect at that level they are really more worried about content.


  1. I find that PDFs – signed & certified, as needed – are tremendous tools for personal business transactions as well.

    I use thawte’s certificate for personal work (available for free; being notarized will allow name inclusion), and a timestamp server (that charges only a small fee per transaction) for those docs that need to be certified as signed on a particular date.

    Documents can restricted from changes (as needed) and are much easier to maintain than faxes (still de rigeur for many real estate transactions).

    I’m using Symphony and Open Office, more and more, to create the originals.

  2. Indeed, the only problem with PDF is that you lose the animations that people often put in their presentations. A lot of the time, they’re unnecessary — most of the time, I’d say — but once in a while, there’s a real benefit to a good animation.

    Otherwise, I’m still seeing lots of things coming as .doc (and recently I got a .doc encoded as .rar, which I’d not seen before). Whenever I get one, I ask the sender if he/she/it can send me PDF or ODF next time.

    I’m glad IBM’s changing, but the rest of the world is still doing a lot of .doc.

  3. Produce PDF from Openoffice and MS office from the same source document. Print the PDFs compare the results.

    If its the same as the last time I did it the quality is with OpenOffice.org and its relations are fair ahead. Basically if MS cannot export to PDF good quality in this day and age using it is a problem.

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