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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.


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 is based on StarOffice--support the standard. Other technology providers, including Novell and IBM, have already voiced their support for OpenDocument or OpenOffice.

Even vendors that do not sell Office-style productivity applications have an interest in OpenDocument, RedMonk's O'Grady said.

An e-mail company, for example, could bake support for the format into its software and allow a user to embed a fully formatted document within a message without having to launch a separate application, he said. Another possibility is for a wiki server to use XML to programmatically extract data from OpenDocument-formatted documents.

Government interest
Because OpenDocument-based products are not widely used, the financial incentive for corporate or governmental customers is still not thoroughly tested, analysts and industry executives said.

NASCIO's Gallt said that state governments are looking at whether Massachusetts can make the case that adopting OpenDocument will provide a compelling return on investment.

Massachusetts state officials argued the move will save millions of dollars and that an "open" format developed through a multiparty standards organization ensures the state

That policy, however, is being challenged by the state senate, which is considering the creation of a special committee with industry representatives to approve technical standards. Various industry groups have criticized the move as well, saying it limits the choice of office suites for customers.

Gallt said that the other states' agencies exploring OpenDocument are doing so in a far more scaled-down and less visible way than Massachusetts.

"It's still, in a lot of ways, behind-the-scenes discussions and evaluations at this point, because it is such an emotional and volatile topic, as Massachusetts has found," he said.

Some foreign governments are looking seriously at OpenDocument, IBM's Sutor said. "Particularly in Europe, to a lot of folks, it seems like a fairly obvious direction," he said.

The French state tax agency said Wednesday it intends to migrate 80,000 desktops next year from Microsoft Office 97 to OpenOffice, an open-source product that uses OpenDocument. The move will save about $34 million dollars, the agency's chief technology officer told ZDNet UK.

Those moves toward adoption suggest that the time is right for Microsoft's rivals to take on the software giant and its dominance in desktop products. The ODF Summit's technical and marketing initiatives could make OpenDocument-based products more viable replacements.

"We seem to have reached some important point where people feel this is a must-win battle," said Sutor. "I think this is critically important."

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK contributed to this report.