A view of ODF from the other side (UPDATED)

I have, in a past incarnation, worked with Microsoft’s Office products closely in a professional scenario. To this end, I was subscribed to an electronic newsletter then called “Woody’s Office Watch”, and now simply “Office Watch”. This is run as a newsletter for users of Microsoft’s Office Suite, but it is independant and not affiliated with Microsoft in any way. In fact, they have no problems laying into Microsoft hard when the boys in Seattle mess up and inconvenience their users.

The website, for those interested, is http://office-watch.com.

Why the plug? (I have nothing to do with Office-Watch by the way). Well, recently one of their newsletters has been about a subject close to my heart; namely, the OpenDocument Format. It contains a mostly accurate description of the situation (though a fair amount is missing and it is slightly distorted) and I think it gives a useful guide of the ODF to MS Office users. It also raises a number of interesting points.

Unfortunately, this particular newsletter does not seem to be in their site’s archives at time of writing, so I can't provide a direct link to it yet. Should it become so, I will update this entry to include it. I will quote what I feel are the important parts here under what I hope is “fair use”. (Hey... I did plug the newsletter above too...)

UPDATE: The article is now on line and can be found here.

The newsletter starts with the following...

While most of the talk has been about the upcoming document format change in Office 2007 there are also a competitive set of Office file formats to consider.. The OpenDocument format is internationally recognized standard for Office documents for text, spreadsheets, presentations, charts and images. It is supported in some open source Office rivals like OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, Writely (now owned by Google), IBM Workplace and the next version of Lotus Notes.. Earlier this month (May 2006) the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) approved ODF as the standard for XML based Office suite documents. If you see references to ISO 26300 - that’s another name for ODF.. In this feature we’ll briefly cover the similarities and differences between the upcoming Office 2007 document formats and the OpenDocument format. Much of the current writings compare the Microsoft Office binary formats (doc, xls, etc.) or MS Open Office XML with OpenDocument formats - not what Microsoft has in the pipeline.. Mostly we’d like to prepare you for the possibility that someone will send you an OpenDocument file - with this issue you’ll be able to recognize them and use them in Office..

It is nice to see an internet resource for Microsoft users getting ODF in essence right, and not spreading the usual FUD that ODF is the OpenOffice.org suite or vice-versa. It then goes on to simply explain the basics of ODF and some differences with Microsoft’s formats for its target audience. Also it describes the state of various plug-in and web-based ODF solutions for MS Office. However, it did get one thing wrong. The newsletter says:

The main difference is the support for macros. The ODF formats don’t seem to have any - at least none that we can find. This means there’s much less risk of viruses being embedded into an ODF file but it also means there’s no cross-program automation support..

Well... they may not have been able to find any, but ODF does support storing of macros. Also, on an observation, the ability to embed viruses into an office suite very much relies on the application, not the file format. The fact that, in the past at least, Microsoft’s Office programs were run as administrator and they could run code without informing the user, I think, was more of a significant factor here.

An interesting point they make is near the end of the newsletter...

ODF has a place and presents Microsoft with a dilemma. Since there is no decent plug-in to support ODF documents in MS Office, some users will find it necessary to download a free Office suite like OpenOffice.org just so they can open and save ODF documents.. Microsoft really doesn’t want people trying OpenOffice or other rivals, customers might start wondering why they are paying Microsoft for functionality they can get elsewhere for much less or nothing.. Microsoft should swallow their corporate pride and provide in-built support for ODF, much in the same way that Office has opened and saved WordPerfect and Rich Text format documents for many years.. ODF support in MS Office would benefit Microsoft customers and reduce the risk of them ’straying’ out of necessity. Microsoft argues that ODF isn’t widely accepted and their Office XML formats are better—but that didn’t stop them supporting the WordPerfect format when it suited them.. If Microsoft chooses not to support ODF in their Office products they will conspicuously not be able to work with an ISO standard..

The last paragraph there of course may not be true. It is a common assumption that MS will try for ISO if they get ECMA certification (which is likely). In fact, I seem to recall MS saying as much.

The point about people downloading OOo and/or other ODF editors just to read ODF files sent to them is valid. Microsoft’s reluctance to include ODF support itself in its own suite—which I believe is motivated by greed and an attempt to lock people in—may well cost them customers and revenue. People like freedom and independence. Microsoft would like to remove those as far as Office Programs are concerned, and Microsoft is fooling nobody in their shenanigans and so called claims in this theatre.

I have often thought about simply emailing documents using ODF, rather than converting them to PDF, or in some extreme cases, to MS DOC format. I think I will start doing that, and point people to the OpenOffice.org web site in the body of the email.


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