Winning the OpenDocument vs. OpenXML war

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In August 2005 Peter Quinn, now retired Chief Information Officer of Massachusetts, decided that OpenDocument was the best way to store documents with the guarantee that they would be able to be opened 10, 30, 50 years from now. For a state government, this is particularly important. He led Massachusetts toward OpenDocument and The move, which sparked controversy and ferocious lobbying, is likely to end-up in history books (and while we’re at it, I’ll mention that history books in particular ought to be accessible 50, 100, 1000 years from now!). Quinn’s move was to create a snowball effect we have all witnessed over the past 2 years; when MA switched to OpenDocument, somebody at Microsoft realised that they had a problem—a real one—and that something needed to be done right away.

Having OpenXML (Microsoft’s standard) approved by an official body quickly, very quickly, became Microsoft’s priority. To start with, it looked like the software giant had managed to fool everybody and had things its way. Things turned out a little more complicated than that. Right now, the future doesn’t look too bright for Microsoft, as the ISO fast-tracking of OpenXML is hitting problems on all fronts; money can open many doors, but it can’t buy you broad consensus on a bogus standard pushed through via sneaky practices. Microsoft keeps managing to defend an indefensible format day after day, but it’s proving to be an up-hill battle.

However, the real war has only just started. ISO allowing Microsoft to fast track OpenXML is in itself a really bad sign: a sign of a standard body that is willing to be bent by lobbying and by the big muscles (or dollars?) of a company that has grown too big. I know Microsoft, I have witnessed computer history unfold before me for decades, and I sadly believe that OpenXML will eventually manage to squeeze through the standardisation process, and well, become a competing standard (an expression that is absurd in itself, if you ask me).

While the standardisation war is absolutely crucial, I firmly believe that the only way this battle can be won is by making sure that people use OpenDocument in their everyday life. This sounds obvious, but well, it isn’t—and it isn’t an easy goal. Here are some things that can be done to fight the battle:

  • Ask companies to make documents available in OpenDocument format. Bank forms, mortgage application forms, templates, etc.: write to every company you use, and ask them to provide ODF files as well as DOC/PDF ones.
  • Lobby Microsoft so that it directly supports documents. Right now, there are two options: the Sun ODF Plug-in for Microsoft Office and the OpenXML/ODF Translator Add-ins for Office. Neither of them are optimal. They both have problems and limitations mostly because of Microsoft. For example, Sun’s plugin has problems that stem directly from Microsoft: every time you open an ODF document, you get: “This file needs to be opened by the ODF Text Document text converter, which may pose a security risk if the file you are opening is a malicious file. Choose Yes to open this file only if you are sure it is from a trusted source." Also, you can’t open an OpenDocument file using the plugin with Office 2007, which has a bug that causes it to ignore... other input filters. These are obviously show-stoppers for the average user. I see these plugins as temporary solutions. Since OpenDocument is a standard, it should be included in Microsoft Office by default, even though this might take a great deal of lobbying and flexing of muscles.
  • Convince more and more OEMs to provide pre-installed with their computers. Dell is already doing it with their Ubuntu machines. However, what OpenDocument really needs, is to be an available option—a free one!—when you get a new Windows computer to have already available. This is made hard by Microsoft trying to put a “text drive" version of Office in OEM computers. Again, I have seen some movement here, and I think it’s a very obtainable goal.
  • Make people and small offices realise that Office doesn’t come with Windows, and if they are using Office without paying for it, they are doing something illegal. Show them, a valid alternative. This seems obvious, but I am always amazed by the number of people who have never seen or heard of
  • If you have a popular web site, only give away ODF files; if people complain, tell them to download and install In my view. should become “The Firefox of the office suites".

Basically, members of the free software community can and should do more than just watch the fight and rest on their laurels: the more people that fight, the more likely we are to win this battle, which is anything but over. We should all keep in mind that OpenDocument might become, even in the long term, a “fringe format" that nobody actually uses. Microsoft’s monopoly on file formats, if that becomes the case, would create unimaginable damage.



Live TV's picture

what a shame that standards die because certain companies want their own proprietary set standards to thrive and take precedence.

Robert Pogson's picture

M$ succeeded in getting MA to recognize OOXML as an open format. How references to Word 95, etc. can be considered open, I have no clue. New-speak.


A problem is an opportunity.

e-user's picture
Submitted by e-user (not verified) on

Having industrial/commercial support for ODF is one thing, but support on a broad public scale is another. We need people that are aware and tell their neighbors to cause a snowball effect. The actions and awareness of free people make the difference between still corporate-friendly pushing of standards nowadays coined by the term "Open Source" and real standards based on their (our!) decision on freedom. As long as people aren't aware there will be no real freedom as people rely on each other to live freely, not on corporations or government.

Please help creating a free society!

With regards from Germany

Morten Juhl Johansen's picture

In Denmark, there is a parliamentary decision to apply open standards in communicating official documents. Here, the discussion has been whether Open XML can be considered an open standard. See article on this here:
I still find that OOo .odt docs often do not open correctly on KWord. As long as that is the case, talking about standards becomes a bit abstract.

Abhijit Nadgouda's picture

I agree, there is no success like the common man adopting the standard. I think we should get the online office suites to encourage ODF. That will automatically make people aware and educate them about ODF.

Wolfgang Lonien's picture


thanks for your article. I mentioned it on my blog twice already:

- and

Plus you can see my advice to Achim Berg, CEO of Microsoft Germany, on LXer Linux News:


I agree - it is an important topic. And RMS needs all the help he can get. We all owe him anyway.

With greetings from Germany,

Wolfgang Lonien
"CEO" of the community site

Franco's picture

When I requested a hosting provider to build our website, I wanted to have downloadable files available as .doc (unfortunately our customer are very much conservative...), .pdf and .odf. The sad story is that I had even to explain them what the .odf extension is.

So, not only the great audience need education but also the so-named "professionals".

Stefan Gustavson's picture
Submitted by Stefan Gustavson (not verified) on

I think the best defense against OOXML attacks is to keep up the good, thorough and speedy work to improve the quality and versatility of ODF and ODF-supporting free software. Remember that OOXML is a buggy, awkward and badly documented file format which seems to be specifically designed to be supported in full only by MS Office. It is merely a facade of a standard, not a standard in the real meaning of the word, i.e. it can't actually be successfully and completely implemented by other vendors.

I think very few, if any, applications will support the creation of OOXML files any time soon. Reading, yes, writing of a limited subset, yes, but probably no full support from anything but MS Office. Come to think of it, even MS Office probably won't support it in full. Even if the standard is repaired so that it actually describes a correct format, which ECMA-376 does not, MS has a pretty long history of not even getting their own stuff quite right. Wouldn't it be fun if they could be held accountable for not adhering to their own standard, and therefore not supporting any standard document format at all? There are clearly some things which Word2007 does which are not standards conformant, like using VML in a newly created document. The standard explicitly says it should not. Looks like they messed it up.

It is obvious that writing office productivity software is no longer rocket science, and that it is now within reach of free software projects to create high quality office suites. is only one example of that. If *only* MS uses OOXML and nobody else supports it, MS might soon find itself alone inside the walls they built to keep users from moving to other office software, with no means for tearing them down. In there, MS will starve to death and never bother us again with its highly questionable ethics. Or perhaps MS Office will actually start supporting ODF and start competing with quality software, not with lock-in tactics using obfuscated file formats.

I would certainly consider paying for MS Office it it was any good. If it was significantly better than it could even cost almost as much as it does now, I would still consider buying it. But it would need to support ODF first, I certainly wouldn't assume everyone else was prepared to buy it.

A few years ago, MS had a firm grip on the market, but they are slipping. They can feel it, that's why they are resorting to such ugly methods to keep their lock-in at any costs. You can almost smell their fear, and it's sad. All they really have to do is play nice, but they simply don't know how to do it.

Anonymous visitor's picture

While we are at it we need to change MS business practice as well. A lot of people do not know that companies pay a lot of money to MS just to use their products. Example server 2003 itself cost about $500- $800. now that you have a windows 2003 server box now you need clients so you need XP pro that cost about $200 per machine. Ok now you have a windows 2003 server and XP machines and now in order for the machines to talk to the server you need to buy licenses to connect to the windows 2003 server on top of the base cost of the copy of server 2003 and copies of XP Pro. I know this is way of topic but still shows how MS controls the market.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

AFAIK, ODF is not supported by other free office suites/applications as weel as By the way, how do we know that supports the standard well enough? ODT is not the default format of AbiWord. As mentioned in one of the comments above, KWord and OOo implementations of ODF are not 100% compatible. On Windows, you must install a plugin so that AbiWord has full ODF import/export support. Although it is not directly relevant to the issue, I believe that the fact that OOo is a rather "slow" application is/will be an obstacle for the wide acceptance of OOo and ODF. Just try to open/edit and save an ODT document over 100 pages. You will see what I mean.

The efforts shoud concentrate on supporting ODF as completely as possible. ODF should be the default format. OOo should be as fast as possible (maybe Java is the problem).

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I'm not a big fan of the OOo suite either, but the point is the standard, not the application.

Personally, I've never run into ODF compatibility problems between KWord and OOo (not denying that it can happen of course -- I may just be lucky). OTOH, I have seen a number of problems going back-and-forth between OOo and KWord in DOC format. ODF, being an open, well-documented format, means that both parties can readily meet the standard if they are willing to put in a reasonable effort. The old proprietary standards like DOC format made that a near-impossible task, and that explains the problems I've had with it.

I agree that OOo is still way too slow, and I personally prefer to use KWord (or better yet, LyX -- but it doesn't have an ODF filter to my knowledge, unfortunately). In fact, I'm very pleased with the KOffice suite for isolated use -- it's only when it comes to MS Office interoperability that I find I need to use OOo -- and then I mainly use it as a conversion utility.

I know that the media hype is that ODF is " format", but this isn't really all that true. OOo v1.x can't even read ODF, and until earlier this year, I still had computers running a version of Debian with this earlier version of the OOo suite (after my surprise with v1, I pretty quickly got around to upgrading them all to use OOo v2.x). ODF is really a cooperative standard that all of these applications are working towards. OOo may currently be the best implementation -- but that could easily change. In fact, I'd really like to one of these other applications take the lead.

That's really the whole point of using an OPEN standard -- it makes the applications compete on the quality of their implementation without creating locked-in clusters of users who have all their files held hostage by whoever controls the format.

Terry Hancock's picture

Oops. The above post was by me. I didn't intend to post anonymously.

Oh, and I've since found out that there is at least an export filter from LyX to ODF; I just haven't got it installed (it's on my to-do list now). I still don't think there's an import filter.

TomS's picture
Submitted by TomS (not verified) on

Yeah. Abiword uses it's own .abw format, which is a XML format similar to HTML, but in my mind Abiword is the ideal word processor, fast and simple. If I want to write more complex documents, I'd use LyX or LaTeX.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on


I spent a few minutes there trying to figure out what a "text drive" version was -- maybe a filesystem that converts all text documents into DOC or OOXML format on disk writes?


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Tony Mobily's picture


Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine