The evolution of office document standards

OpenDocument may be the Homo sapien to Microsoft Office's native-format Neanderthals

In high tech it has always been the same. What to an outsider may seem like an inconsequential piece of new technology, to an insider is visionary. This is the case with the recent ISO preliminary vote approving the OpenDocument format as a specification, not to mention the excitement surrounding the fact that the OpenDocument Foundation has completed a plug-in for Microsoft Office that allows Office applications to create ODF documents natively.

ODF appears to be a rather innocuous standard file format based on XML. One conversation with Gary Edwards, president of the OpenDocument Foundation, however, will change your mind.

But first, let’s dismiss the upcoming Microsoft Office XML file format by saying it is not open. OpenDocument, Edwards says, is the first XML file format for productivity suites that is completely open.

As a stand-alone format, OpenDocument is perhaps trivial. But we know that desktops are part of a larger and ever-growing community of information domains, mainly driven by the Internet, Edwards says. Although Microsoft Office products are somewhat interoperable with one another, Office is still a closed world. ODF breaks down those worlds in dramatic fashion.

Embedded inside ODF documents are descriptions of what the documents are. The descriptions can be accessed by any other content or transactional resource, such as SOA services, and by content and archival management systems. This is not just about applications or productivity suites, but about collaborative computing.

For many people, their first initiation into collaborative computing was Lotus Notes, and then Writely. “Writely is a collaboration processor, not a word processor,” Edwards says. The software lets you invite others to join you in managing a document. By moving into a workgroup, the document can become part of a larger business process.

Until now, many state and local governments, as well as the Europe Union, have been looking for a standard document format that doesn’t tie them to Microsoft. But there was no easy way to transition away from Office. The ODF plug-in is a major piece of technology -- albeit a first step -- to facilitate the migration to a completely open suite based on ODF.

“I’m very surprised [end-users] see something of value without it even being explained,” Edwards says. Using ODF, he says, content management systems will allow users to upload open docs and repurpose them in a server environment that can be synchronized in a local environment. “You would have a local hard disk with a dumping spot that is synced and available to workgroups,” Edwards says.

If you want to manage something at both the human level and the machine level, you need structure. With ODF, machines now have the instructions to do their mission, embedded inside the document itself, portable and self-contained.

Advanced metadata based on open XML documents will allow users to narrow searches to concepts and ideas, rather than stringing together meaningless keywords. You end up with documents that can be used by information systems or individuals, and with applications that can grasp the content and the semantic meaning of the document.

Edwards says ODF, with its interaction capability and portability, was written so that applications and computer systems will still be able to make use of ODF files 200 years from now. I think ODF is the next step on the evolutionary tree of interoperability. If evolution is all about survival of the fittest, Edwards is right.

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