Microsoft's ODF Concession

The serious ODF watchers out there have heard the news by now, but the less standards-obsessed might be surprised to learn that Microsoft is now sponsoring an open-source project to create a translation bridge between its Open XML document format, set to be the standard in all future Office releases, and the OpenDocument Format (ODF), which was developed by the OASIS standards consortium.

The goal of the literally named Open XML Translator initiative is to develop tools for building a technical bridge between Open XML and ODF docs. The project will live on SourceForge, and will be made available under the BSD open-source license. The first component of the project is the ODF Add-in for Microsoft Word 2007, which is designed to allow Word users to open and save ODF docs. You can download a version of it now from the SourceForge site. Microsoft says it is collaborating on the initiative with French IT solution provider Clever Age, and several ISVs, including India-based Aztecsoft and Dialogika in Germany.

Microsoft's announcement  was greeted with a fairly narrow range of reactions, from told-you-so snickers to about-time harrumphs. In the main, the news has been viewed as a defeat for the Redmond software giant, which had been seen as engaging in some moderately Machiavellian maneuvering to undermine the ODFslipping the format to the notoriously rubber-stamping Ecma for standardization; committing $30 million in software to the high schools and universities of Massachusetts, the one state to seriously consider an IT policy favoring the ODF.

The ever insightful Andrew Updegrove, standards maven and creator of Consortiuminfo.org, sees the plug-in announcement as the latest in a series of Microsoft concessions in reaction to the rising popularity of the ODF. And he points out that the company has been quietly supporting the development of conversion plug-ins for some time. ''Microsoft's latest concession clearly makes it easier for governments and other users to feel safe in making the switch from Office to ODF-supporting software, since Microsoft itself will be collaborating to make document exchanges smooth and effortless,'' he says. Don't miss his full analysis .

Another not-to-be missed take on the Microsoft news comes from Pamela Jones, editor of Groklaw, who sees the ODF translator as a potential ODF killer. She writes, in part: ''Here's the choice [Microsoft] is trying to posit: You will have to download their ODF translator yourself and install it. Or, just stick with Microsoft's one-stop competing solution that is built in to their software offering. Considering Microsoft's monopoly position, and my mom's and most governments' typical technical skills, guess what Microsoft hopes moms and governments will choose? I see a plan in not building the ODF translator into Microsoft's software.... It looks open. But it's marginalizing ODF....''

Finally, don't miss Sun Microsystems's chief open source officer Simon Phipps' July 6th post on his SunMink blog (''Kicking and Screaming''). He suggests that Microsoft has architected the translator plug-in to make saving and retrieving ODF files as hard as possible. He might have a point: An ODF file opened by the new Microsoft add-in is converted into Office OpenXML and imported into Word as a read-only file. Users who want to save it as an ODF file must use the Export as ODF button. Also, there's no export function in this plug-in (though one is expected later this year), and as far as I can tell, you can't set ODF as the default file format.

''This is clearly inferior to the OpenDocument Foundation plug-in for Word,'' Phipps writes, ''which elegantly adds ODF as another, peer file format so you can open, save and work with files in a natural way.'' He adds that this translator plug-in is hardly the best cure for what he has dubbed ''digital Alzheimer's,'' especially for governments, where the potential consequences of fading file formats is perhaps the most worrying. The right approach, he writes, is ''to use a file format that's an open, completely no-strings-attached standard, designed with multiple implementations in mind and actually implemented in multiple products. Today that's ISO26300 OpenDocument, and Microsoft's product is now able to use it too. Anyone who cares about the longevity of their documents or their Freedom to Leave should exchange and store them as OpenDocument, whatever working format they choose locally in their application.''

Why has Microsoft taken steps now to support the ODF so close on the heels of what seemed (to me, at least) to be a full-court press to extinguish it? I'm with Updegrove, who believes that the apparent general support of the ODF in Europe is a strong motivator. Looming antitrust sanctions from the European Commission could be an additional influence; an ODF compromise might improve the company's image for the upcoming debates on this issue within the EU.

But I also suspect that we might be seeing the effects of recent shifts in the company's leadershipin particular, the ascendance of Ray Ozzie to the position of Chief Software Architect, previously held by Bill Gates. Ozzie, of course, is best-known as the creator of Lotus Notes, and later the founder of peer-to-peer software maker Groove Networks. He joined Microsoft last year, and he is widely considered the driving force behind the company's recent online services push. He's not just new blood; he's a new pair of eyes.

Microsoft's move to support the ODF could be a shrugging real politique, a sneaky move to de-fang the ODF, or a foot-dragging acceptance of the inevitable. And it could be an early example of what I hearby dub The Ozzie Effect.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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