A Cure for Corporate Alzheimer's?
- By John K. Waters
Sun Microsystems threw four of its
tech-policy execs into a hot conference room stuffed with holiday-harried
reporters last week for one of its occasional roundtable events. The subject
under discussion: the OASIS OpenDocument Format for Office Applications (ODF).
Sun holds these roundtables fairly often with, I have to say, mixed
results. But this was definitely one of the good ones—an informal and informative
gabfest with some very knowledgeable IT mavens, including Tim Bray, Web technologist
and co-inventor of XML; Simon Phipps, Chief Open Source Officer; Piper Cole, VP of
global government and community affairs; and accessibility architect Peter Korn.
(All Sun people, but no corporate clones.)
Sun, of course, is foursquare behind the ODF, while Microsoft seems to be agin it—or perhaps
it's more accurate to say that it is for its own Office
Open XML format.
But this debate should not be seen as a clash between Sun and Microsoft. Lots
of organizations have jumped on the ODF bandwagon since the OASIS Open Office
XML Format technical committee was formed back in 2002. Sun was on board at that
time, but so were Boeing, Sony, the National Archive of Australia, the New York
State Office of the Attorney General, and the Society of Biblical Literature,
The ODF is an open document file format for saving and exchanging editable
text documents, spreadsheets, charts, and presentations—all that stuff we make
with productivity software. It's based on the XML-based file format originally
created by OpenOffice.org. Its purpose
is very straightforward: to guarantee long-term access to these documents
without legal or technical barriers; to create what Phipps called (about a
hundred times) ''a multilateral baseline invariant file format.''
To be sure, it's in Sun's best interest to see the ODF widely adopted, but
with the possible exception of Microsoft (and I emphasize
possible ), it's probably in everybody's best
interest. Phipps characterized the phenomenon of newer versions of widely
used productivity programs being unable to open documents created by older versions
as ''corporate Alzheimer's.'' It’s a good label—pithy, yet scary—and it's bound to get a lot
of virtual ink, but it also hits the nail on the head. ''We will continue to
have this problem with drifting file formats and the loss of society's memory,''
Phipps added, ''until there is a multi-lateral baseline file format.''
The issues around the development of
a multilateral baseline invariant file format (Geez! I swear I can actually see the words
in my head!) is serious business, and we should all keep up with the
debate. Here's a little chronology of events around the ODF, with links to sources that I
found useful as I got myself up to speed. This is just a highlight reel, but
it’s a place to start:
- December 2002: OASIS forms the Open Office XML Format technical committee.
- May 2005: OpenDocument 1.0 is approved as an OASIS Standard.
- June 2005: Microsoft announces its Office Open XML initiative. By default,
documents created in the next release of Microsoft Office products will be based
on Open XML.
- September 2005: the Commonwealth
of Massachusetts proposes a plan to phase out use of proprietary formats to
store government documents and switch to the ODF. The Commonwealth's reason: ''A
public record, once stored electronically, must not require a proprietary
computer program to read it; it should be readable by many different word
processors, spreadsheets and other productivity applications, regardless of
- September 2005: the MA Commonwealth announces the publication of the final
version of the Enterprise
Technical Reference Model v3.5, which became effective on September 21,
- September 30, 2005: Sun publishes a ''declaration of
non-enforcement'' of its US and foreign patents against any implementation
of the ODF v1.0 or any subsequent version of the spec.
- November 2005: Microsoft announces plans to open its Office file formats
and to submit them to international technology standards organization ECMA, and from there to the
International Standards Organization (ISO). Microsoft says it
intends to document the format schema and allow third parties to write software
that works with the files under a royalty-free license.
- November 2005: Microsoft promises not to seek to enforce claims over any of
its patents in the Office XML spec.
- December 2005: IBM announces
that the next release of its Workplace Managed Client 2.6, due early next year,
will support ODF version 1.0. Check out the press release on Market Wire.
- December 2005: Five US library associations send a letter to Massachusetts
Secretary of State William Galvin to urge the commonwealth to adopt the ODF. The
letter is signed by the American Library Association, the American Association
of Law Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, the Medical Library
Association, and the Special Libraries Association, which together represent
more than 139,000 libraries in the US.
Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS)
Australia-based OpenDocument Fellowship
Microsoft's OpenXML FAQ
Tech-industry attorney Andy Updegrove's blog at ConsortiumInfo.org.
Undegrove is one of the most vocal and quoted proponents of the ODF.
Simon Phipps' work blog.
Peter Korn's blog.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached