New front in the doc format war

BURLINGAME, CA—Another state government has joined the debate over how best to guarantee long-term access to office documents, free of the restrictions of proprietary software or the limitations of outdated technologies. A bill has been introduced in Minnesota that would require all executive branch agencies to “use open standards in situations where the other requirements of a project do not make it technically impossible to do so.”

The Minnesota bill is the second state action designed to address growing concerns that drifting file formats could cause a kind of corporate Alzheimer's that threatens future access to data in the masses of text docs, spreadsheets and presentations generated today in virtually every quarter. In September, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proposed a plan to phase out use of proprietary formats to store government documents in favor the Open Document Format (ODF).

The ODF is one of two rival formats currently making their way through two different standards-approval processes. The ODF was developed by the OASIS standards consortium from a file format native to the OpenOffice suite, a free and open-source productivity bundle developed from Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice suite.

The other is Microsoft’s Open XML, which the company has submitted to Ecma International, a standards group based in Europe. Microsoft has said that Open XML will be the default file format for the next version of the Office suite. According to Microsoft’s Brian Jones, lead program manager for the Office suite, the company has no plans to support the ODF.

Both file formats are based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML).

The debate over office document formats is nothing short of a battle for our collective memory, says Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems. Phipps coined the term “corporate Alzheimer’s” to describe the drifting file format phenomenon.

“People are finding that documents which are as little as 10 years old are inaccessible to them now,” Phipps says. “As long as the baseline file format continues to evolve at the rate of a new format every 18 months—which it has for the past 20 years—you can guarantee that the time to sunset of a particular format is going to be something like 10 or 11 years.”

Lots of companies and organizations have jumped on the ODF bandwagon, but attorney Andrew Updegrove, one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted supporters of the ODF, doesn't see the Minnesota bill as a “me too” ODF effort.

“The meat of the proposed amendment is in its novel definition of an ‘open standard,’” Updegrove says, “which is neither expressly targeted at creating a window of opportunity for ODF, nor for open-source software... It appears to be a group of proponents thinking in their own way about what ‘open formats’ should mean.”

Updegrove, who is a partner at the Boston law firm of Gesmer Updegrove, and the creator of, an information site covering standards, standard setting and open-source software, worries that the Minnesota approach could be problematic for proponents of open standard file formats.

“It won't do anyone any good if everyone makes up their own definition of what an 'open format' is,” he says. “If that happens, then vendors won't know what to do, nor will there be sufficient economic incentive to do anything at all. That's why we have standards rather than just unique customer requirements.”

About the Author

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