OpenDocument: Signs of Winning
Here’s the gist of the story so far:
- Massachusetts wants to use ODF instead of Microsoft Office format. They say it’s open and it’s XML.
- Omitting the “and it’s”, Microsoft calls their new competitive format OpenXML!
- Massachusetts say no, it’s not standard.
- Microsoft submits OpenXML to ECMA. They pledge not to sue.
- Massachusetts start reconsidering.
- ODF is approved by ISO. OpenDocument Foundation makes a Microsoft Office plugin to support ODF.
But what’s the big fuzz, eh? Office files are office files, there shouldn’t be a big difference in what to use, or so they want you to think.
You see, the big difference, the “openness” of a file format isn’t technical at all. Developers can support binary file formats (e.g. PDF) just as well as they support plain text or XML-based ones (e.g. ODF), there’s nothing much to it as long as the format itself is well document.
The burden is rather legal, it comes from enforcing patents and licensing costs on those who try to support Microsoft Office file formats. That’s completely irrelevant to the technology itself. Massachusetts didn’t want that burden, they wanted a format that no vendor can control.
The way I see it is if you’re looking for vendor independence (as opposed to vendor neutrality) then you should go for ODF. It’s similar to how Ogg Vorbis compares to MP3, in the sense that the former is unincumbered by licensing, free from patents and you’re absolutely free to do whatever the hell you want with it (just don’t claim you invented it), while the latter forces you to pay licensing costs and at time you can be stopped legally from supporting MP3.
Vendor neutrality is all good, I’d be happy to see Microsoft taking a step towards that and be able to use their format in any other software. But what bothers me is that Microsoft would still retain the rights to modify the format for their own benefit without prior notice. They’ve been doing it for years with their binary format, and using XML doesn’t chage that.
Now compare that to vendor independence, where the format is controlled by a comittee (e.g. ISO, ECMA, W3C?). Technically, that doesn’t chage the fact that there’s a single legal entity behind the standard, but it’s completely different when that entity is a non-profit / non-profit-seeking one.
I’m not sure why Microsoft is scared from openning up their file formats, I mean really openning up. Nobody could care less about who invented a standard if it’s well-supported and approved by international standarization groups. Microsoft would still have a big advantage over the competition.
Everybody knows that Microsoft Office is superior to OpenOffice, and it would probably stay that way. Those guys have invested 15 years of R&D into that gorilla, it’s one hell of a beast there, it does everything you might ever want to do. Of course, most people don’t use 10% of its features, and 50% don’t work as advertised, but that’s besides the point.
Microsoft can learn a lot from Adobe! Think of it, Adobe created PostScript, PDF and SVG, all standards, all open, both binary and XML-based. How exactly are they supporting those? What’s in it for them? Well for starters, Acrobat now rhymes with PDF, their products are more or less synonyms with the technologies they invented. They have almost no competition, it’s very difficult to beat them at their own game, they invented that game.
Microsoft can do (or should’ve done) the same, open up their file formats, make everybody use them regardless of whether they trust the company or not (since that would’ve been irrelevant), eliminate the need for another format (just like PostScript did), and bam! You’ve got yourself total control over the office market. Competition would be running behind Microsoft trying to keep up with their features, and there would be no way they can do that without having a comparable budget.
Honestly, I switched to OpenOffice in it’s pre-1.0 days, my only reason was that I didn’t want to keep my files in .doc format. I didn’t miss many Word features, mainly because I don’t use most of them, I’m sure others would have. My second reason was that OpenOffice was Free software.
I value my freedom, I am not willing to let go that easily.