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ODF Split Shakes Up Document Battle

The ongoing file format battle between proponents of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) took a surprising turn lthis week, when a key ODF proponent announced that it intended to abandon the ISO-approved specification.

The move by the OpenDocument Foundation comes less than two months after Microsoft lost a key ISO vote to approve OOXML as a standard.

Sam Hiser, vice president and director of business affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, says a fundamental disagreement about the definition of interoperability led to the split. "When you talk to developers, there is a perception that ODF is a universal document format, but this year it has panned out that this is not the case," he says.

The problem, says Hiser, is that the ODF spec is focused tightly on the functionality provided by the OpenOffice suite. That approach makes for an efficient and streamlined file format -- something that OOXML is not, experts agree -- but fails to account for the difficulties posed by application migration.

"Each of them is having the same experience," Hiser says of organizations adopting the ODF-centric OpenOffice suite. "They will try to adopt OpenOffice in a migration scenario and they will just [scream]. They will go crazy in those environments. And I am speaking as a migration expert.

"As good as OpenOffice is, with its 85 percent file fidelity with Microsoft Office documents, you still have immense problems you have to work through."

The OpenDocument Foundation is now urging the industry to support the Complex Document Format (CDF), a file format specification managed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the same body that defines and maintains XML and HTML. Work began on the CDF spec in October 2004.

Alexander Falk, president of XML tools vendor Altova, says in an email interview that his company hasn't paid much attention to CDF. "We looked at it a while ago, but it didn't seem to have much momentum then. [We have] no immediate plans to support it right now, as we haven't seen any interest from our customers so far."

Two Steps Back

The sudden departure is certainly damaging for ODF, and could help Microsoft gain ISO approval of OOXML, when it comes up for another vote in February. However, Falk says the ODF split is hardly surprising in the world of standards forming.

"Consortiums of seemingly aligned interests often fall apart, when it becomes apparent that the interests aren't as aligned as everyone thought they were," he writes.

Hiser says his group has been hamstrung by ODF's ties to the OpenOffice application, and by Sun Microsystem's unwillingness to expand the scope of ODF interoperability.

"[CDF] is a format that everyone can work with, that every application can work with, with equal rights. It's not coming out of an application," Hiser says. "We need an application-neutral format to be a universal document format."

For developers, the split casts doubt on ODF as a viable target for document storage. Just as important, it may convince many shops that Microsoft's OOXML format is the best XML-based file format option, at least for the near term.

"The reality -- when you listen to customers -- is that people are interested in OOXML, because that's the format that Microsoft Office produces," Falk writes. "In the grand scheme of things the ODF/CDF theater is meaningless. People can start working with OOXML today."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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