OpenDocument format gathers steam

Growing cadre of vendors vows to improve alternatives to Microsoft Office, as government customers voice more interest.

Big guns in the software industry are massing behind OpenDocument as government customers show more interest in alternatives to Microsoft's desktop software.

IBM and Sun Microsystems convened a meeting in Armonk, N.Y., on Friday to discuss how to boost adoption of the standardized document format for office applications. The ODF Summit brought together representatives from a handful of industry groups and from at least 13 technology companies, including Oracle, Google and Novell.

That stepped-up commitment from major companies comes amid signs that states are showing interest in OpenDocument. Massachusetts in September decided to standardize on OpenDocument for some state agencies.

James Gallt, the associate director for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said Wednesday that there are a number of other state agencies are exploring the use of the document format standard.

News.context

What's new:
Major software companies are massing behind the OpenDocument, a standardized format for documents. They are launching technical and marketing efforts just as government customers show more interest in alternatives to Microsoft Office.

Bottom line:
OpenDocument could help technology companies loosen Microsoft's grip on desktop software and give state governments an "open" alternative to Office.

More stories on OpenDocument

"It's more grassroots, starting small and working its way through individual states and agencies," Gallt said, but did not specify which governments were looking into it.

Those state customers are seeking alternatives to Microsoft Office, while the technology providers are looking to loosen Microsoft's grip on the desktop marketplace, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk. Those factors are what are fueling the growing momentum for OpenDocument, he said.

"There's a confluence of events," said O'Grady, who attended the ODF Summit. "You have customers like Massachusetts asking for choice and the ability to play vendors off each other, and at the same time, you have vendors looking at an opportunity to compete on a Microsoft control point."

The OpenDocument standard, which uses XML data-tagging to format and store documents, was only ratified in May of this year. The format, known in full as the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, covers applications such as word processors, spreadsheets and charts. As a standard, OpenDocument is an "open" format that can be used in any software, whether closed source or open source.

Although few products incorporate support for OpenDocument right now, O'Grady expects that more manufacturers will adopt it. That could have a significant impact on Microsoft's multibillion-dollar Office franchise, he noted.

Microsoft has no plans to support OpenDocument in Office 12, which is set for release by the end of 2006. Instead, it will rely on third-party companies to create converters between XML-based Office documents and XML-based document formats such as OpenDocument, said Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft Information Worker business strategy.

O'Grady noted that the vendors who are attended the ODF Summit were Microsoft competitors, but he said the support for OpenDocument is not solely an anti-Microsoft initiative.

"Office 12 is a very, very nice package. If they were support ODF, they'd do very well just competing on technical merits of applications. It's very nice package. That's the shame. It doesn't have to be an anti-Microsoft thing," O'Grady said.

At the summit
The participants in last week's ODF Summit included Red Hat, Adobe, Computer Associates, Corel, Nokia, Intel and Linux e-mail company Scalix, in addition to Oracle, Novell and Google. The goal of the meeting, convened by Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source, and Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open-source officer, was to drive support for the standards "on a global level," Sutor said.

The providers committed resources to technically improve OpenDocument through existing standards bodies and to promote its usage in the marketplace, possibly through a stand-alone foundation.

For example, various vendors committed to sponsoring three technical committees at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), the standards body that creates the OpenDocument format.

The OASIS committees will seek to improve OpenDocument-based products for people with disabilities; add digital rights management features that would interoperate with Microsoft Office-based DRM systems; and standardize spreadsheet formula formats, Sutor said.

Echoing comments of other OpenDocument supporters, Sutor said that standardization in productivity application formats follows the pattern set in other technology areas, such as networking and communications protocols.

"Heck, it's just standards...Outside of some politicians and some Microsoft-backed industry groups, there's an overwhelming support for this thing," he said. "It's kind of hard to argue against it."

On the promotional side, IBM will draft a proposal to create an "OpenDocument Foundation" which would serve to market OpenDocument-based products.

At the moment, Sun's StarOffice suite and the open-source product OpenOffice.org--which is based on StarOffice--support the standard. Other technology providers, including Novell and IBM, have already voiced their support for OpenDocument or OpenOffice.

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