A view of ODF from the other side (UPDATED)

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.



Mitch Meyran's picture

As a long-time user of OOo2 (I started testing it when it was around build 59, and I used it intensively with builds 10x), I've followed the ODF vx MSOOXML fiasco for quite a while.

What it summed up to:

Originally, MSOOXML wasn't supposed to be open: you could read the XML specs but it contained a binary key for presentation, you were forbidden from creating an applicatin that could read/write it as-is without getting a licence, and it was supposed to be better due to the existing XML file format in Office 2003 (that could only be used in complete client-server environments, and which are, in fact, completely different formats!). You could read the XML code witha text editor, but that was pretty much it.

Then the State of Massachussetts decreted that their documents should be encoded in formats that allowed 100% access (both content and format) now and in the coming centuries, and ASCII doesn't cut it anymore. MS binary formats were being phased out, and the State found that the upcoming MSOOXML was open in name alone:

  • you needed to pay Microsoft for a licenced software to edit it,
  • you needed to pay Microsoft a licence fee to write a document reader,
  • Microsoft was the only entity allowed to review and modify (or NOT) the file formats.

Meaning that if Microsoft scrapped the format all your documents may become binay noise, if they revoke your licence you can't access your documents anymore, and if they disappear you lose support on the software used to edit these documents.

Yes, Microsoft may disappear - in 10, 25, 150 years. The State will probably last longer.

At the same time, OpenOffice 2 provided the first ever complete implementation of the OASIS OpenDocument format. Strangely, Microsoft was a member of OASIS, was supposed to help shape the new format, and later complained that said format couldn't cover all past functionalities provided by its previous office suites (which may just be bull$hit, since OOo can import 99.95% of older Office documents, sometimes better than MSO itself).

This started a big trouble: since MSOOXML didn't qualify (although Redmond marketers tried to make State officials believe that what was written was of no importance), it left ODF - which was proposed as an ISO standard on the fast track (and eventually approved, as pointed out in the article) - as an editable document format, and PDF as an open presentation format (PDF language is, indeed, free - but editors are hard to write). Massachussetts officials wouldn't budge from their position, no matter how much FUD was sent their way (they had competent technicians digging through the marketspeech).

So Microsoft changed its MSOOXML licence at least twice - it is now pretty much as open as ODF (it may even get implemented in OOo, since it SHOULD be compatible with the GPL in its most recent incarnation), but refused to implement ODF natively (a 3rd-party pluging is about to come out, though), and tries to have it recognised as an ISO standard too - but ISO doesn't like redundant standards, so that left only ECMA.

A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open windows.

jbernatc's picture
Submitted by jbernatc on

I have read that a plugin has been written, but it has not been made available yet. This is mentioned at http://www.consortiuminfo.org/standardsblog/article.php?story=20060506173536926 (there are also a number of interesting opinions related to ODF on that site). The main page at the OpenDocument Foundation also refers to their plug-in and their plans to make it available to the public after development and testing is complete. See http://www.opendocumentfoundation.us/

Author information

Edward Macnaghten's picture


Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.