Wednesday, May 29, 2013

OpenDocument Format gets traction

It appears that the OpenDocument Format (ODF) is gaining traction in Australia. This is good news. ODF is the file format supported by LibreOffice and OpenOffice, both of which are examples of free productivity software. There are proprietary programs that will support ODF, such as Oracle StarOffice and IBM Symphony, but they cost money. If you want to buy a new computer, but don't want to pay for Microsoft Office, LibreOffice is a very handy replacement.

Microsoft now supports ODF v1.1 and will likely support v.1.2 with Office 2013. Microsoft didn't provide this support willingly. They had to do it or they would be shut out of the government software business for office productivity applications.

Many governments across the world now use ODF as a standard document format to provide for interoperability across applications. What this means is that most office productivity applications will support ODF and allow you to exchange documents with other people, with, as Microsoft likes to put it, "full fidelity". "Fidelity" is something Microsoft likes to talk about when it comes to their Office Open XML file format, or, OOXML.

There are some interesting differences between ODF and OOXML. Whereas ODF is completely defined and documented, OOXML is not. Microsoft has inserted "binary blobs" into their format that allows Microsoft to keep some aspects of their document format secret while claiming it to be an open standard.

ODF is unencumbered by patents. It is a common format available to all who want to use, privately or commercially. The only requirement is that the resulting document conform to the standard. ODF was a standard set by hundreds of participants in an effort to create a standard that is enduring beyond centuries.

OOXML is encumbered by certain patents so that only Microsoft can use all the features maintain "fidelity" better than other users of OOXML. Microsoft is very concerned about competition on its home turf and prefers to establish an advantage for itself through a process called, Embrace, Extend, Extinguish. So while Microsoft does have an advantage with OOXML, governments have been reluctant to set OOXML as a standard document format for obvious reasons. They don't want to be dependent on a single vendor.

In 2007, the State of Massachusetts attempted to set ODF as a document standard for all documents. Microsoft took notice and embarked on a vicious and expensive campaign to prevent even one state from establishing an alternative to Microsoft Office.

There seems to be some cognitive dissonance evidenced by Microsoft's arrogance. Document standards must be free and open to protect the sovereignty of the state. For one, the state cannot be dictating that the citizens must buy a proprietary program to read and write documents produced by the government. Second, the state cannot be dependent upon a single vendor to get and retain access to the documents they create.

To put it simply, the argument over which document standard to use is about sovereignty. If the state must rely upon a single vendor to communicate to the people they serve, the state becomes subject to the whims of that vendor. This condition will place the sovereignty of the state at risk.

There is one more problem with Microsoft's idea that they should be the primary stakeholder in the document format used by the state: there is no intellectual property without the state. For decades, Microsoft maintained dominance through government use of their software. That dominance was protected by their secret and proprietary document formats, which in turn was protected by the state with copyrights and patents.

Governments around the world have come to realize the threat to their power that is posed by proprietary document formats. ODF thwarts that threat and provides a stable, safe and open file format for our documents. Open standards are necessary for any democracy to function. ODF, as governments worldwide have recognized, properly addresses that need.
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