Background information on ODF, OOXML and why It mattersPosted: August 17, 2007
In the beginning there was MS Office:
Or at least there has been for a substantial amount of time now. Office has for a long time been the standard office suite almost everywhere, a fact that has made Microsoft a fairly massive amount of money. To ensure that they kept making money off Office, they adopted an unfortunately common practise known as vendor lock-in.
What that means is that the information you type into a .doc file is only available to you if you have a copy of MS Office around that opens it. No one else is given the information on how to open those files. Hence,
- Once you have created a bunch of .doc files, you are restricted to using Word to open them.
- If someone else sends you information in a .doc file, you need word to be able to read/edit that information.
- New versions of Office make subtle changes to how they save those .doc files so you are forced to upgrade if you want to read a file coming from someone with a newer version.
- This is regardless of whether or not you actually need any feature the new version offers.
The overall effect is to ensure that users are locked into a specific vendor’s tools and can’t switch to another vendor’s tools, which may be better or cheaper, without losing all of the information they currently have stored under the file format of the old tool. Even worse, in order to share documents, they will continuously be paying for the latest version of the tool.
Now of course, once the maker of said tool controls a large enough chunk of the market, they have an assured revenue stream from simply releasing new versions of their software, and the consumer is screwed by the masses of old documents they have and their need to communicate with everyone else who uses this same tool and can’t abandon it either.
Enter Sun Staroffice/Openoffice.org and ODF:
In the late 90’s, Sun Microsystems bought an office suite called Staroffice. They decided to make the source code of Staroffice open and in doing so created Openoffice.org, a free, cross-platform office suite.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to someone that there did not exist an open file format and the creation of an international standard for document types would pry the market open and allow several competitors to sell their office suites based solely on individual merit in place of vendor lock-in.
Openoffice’s file format thus became the basis for an International Standards Organization(ISO) approved file format known as Open Document Format (ODF) which is currently controlled by an independent body called OASIS. Oasis is an international standards body that controls several different standardized file formats. Microsoft is listed as a member on their website though I was told by one of their employees that they recently left the group.
ODF is an open standard that is supported in a number of different programs covering all major platforms. Anyone else who wants to implement it has access not only to the original specification but also to the source code of several of its current implementations. Its also a standard under rapid development to add in features that people feel are necessary in a document format. As a result of this there is a substantially reduced risk of vendor lock-in with ODF. Your documents will travel with you between office suites which support ODF. And any Office suite can add support since it is an open standard.
At this very moment, is supported by Openoffice.org, Staroffice(free with Google pack), Koffice, Neooffice, Abiword, Gnumeric, Google Docs and Zoho Office among others. Therefore a document written on any of these programs can be read, written and edited on any other of these programs.
A number of government agencies and businesses started to realize that switching to ODF would free them from vendor lock-in. A couple of them started to do just that and a lot of others are seriously looking at only recognizing open standards in the creation and processing of official documents.
OOXML joins the party:
Obviously the loss of several billion dollars of revenue maintained by an inability of their customers to open their documents anywhere else was not something microsoft was particularly in a hurry to see skip away. Hence, they took the document format of Office 2007 and submitted it to an international standards body called ECMA as Office Open XML(OOXML). All similarities in name to Openoffice.org are a mistake I’m sure *cough*. At the moment, the only full implementation of OOXML I know of is Office 2007. There are partial implementations out there, but nothing that is close to the level of Office’s support.
Now, the initial ODF specification was 700 pages long. It took 3 years to get full OASIS approval and another year after that to get ISO approval. OOXML’s specification is a bit over 6000 pages. It passed ECMA in just about a year and is trying to get fast-tracked through the ISO, reducing the amount of time member countries have to examine the entire thing and come up with objections.
Even with the limited time though, a lot of objections have been raised by people, companies and countries about part of the specification being vaguely written and depending on technology that Microsoft owns patents on and has not waived its right to sue over. The fear is that turning OOXML into an open standard will merely be a trojan horse to allow them their continued stranglehold on the market by means of an ‘open’ format which only they can fully impliment.
In response they have apparently been sending PR teams around to national Standards boards all over the world(Ghana for a fact) to lobby for votes for OOXML under the guise of talking about ‘Open XML Standards’. On the other side there has been an effort spearheaded by IBM to make those same boards, some of which do not necessarily have the expertise to review 6000 pages of dense XML specifications in a month, aware of the existence of ODF and the technical objections that have been raised to OOXML.
Why this matters in Ghana and the developing world:
I keep getting asked this question a lot recently, so I’ll take a stab at ignoring the myopia it implies and answer it as best I can.
Developing countries are still building the vast majority of their IT infrastructure. This means that they do not have a massive base of old documents in a restricted format. Those documents are on paper. Their offices are still being computerized. Their people are still learning how to use those computers. If you are going to teach someone to use an office suite anyway, what difference does it make if that suite is MS Office, Openoffice.org or Google Writer? What difference does it make if those legacy paper documents go to ODF or OOXML? Either way the work has to be done and the money has to be spent.
The problem is, what happens when you lock yourself into a company’s proprietary format because they are giving you free stuff and claim the format is open, then they start charging you for it and you realize all those alternatives they assured you existed can’t fully open your documents and you are stuck with them and their licence fees?
MS is spending a lot of money in Africa and giving a lot of stuff away for free. That altruism won’t last. It can’t, its too expensive. If OOXML is truly open(and what I’m seeing has me doubtful of that) then it doesn’t matter. When they start charging we can just evaluate our options and go in the direction that makes the most sense for us. If it doesn’t, we’ve spent a lot of money to build a foundation that renders us slaves to one company’s whims, and unlike richer parts of the world, we can’t come up with the money to change directions.
If OOXML is inappropriately tied to Microsoft tools and software, it doesn’t fit the definition of an open standard and making it one is inviting trouble we don’t want and probably can’t recover from quickly.