A Cure for Corporate Alzheimer's?

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, among others.

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 vendor.''

- 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, 2005.

- 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.

Other links:

Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS)


Australia-based OpenDocument Fellowship 

Microsoft's OpenXML FAQ page

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



About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].