Vendors form new OpenDocument alliance

ODF could have provided support to embattled CIO who planned Massachusetts' migration to OpenDocument

A group of more than 35 U.S. and international IT vendors, organizations, academic institutions and industry bodies is due to announce the formation of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) Alliance Friday.

The new body, whose initial members include IBM, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems, will focus on further evangelizing the OpenDocument electronic file format.

Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known as OpenDocument, is being developed by the OASIS standards body as an XML (extensible markup language) file format. The format covers text, spreadsheets and other document types created by office productivity suites. Supporters of OpenDocument include offerings from open-source players and Sun's StarOffice and IBM's Workplace software suites.

The ODF Alliance has formed under the auspices of trade association the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). Other IT vendors in the alliance include Corel, EMC, Novell, and Red Hat. The initial member roster lists a variety of organizations from France, India, Japan and the U.K., according to Ken Wasch, SIIA president.

If such a body had existed last year, it's possible the organization could have provided much needed support to an embattled U.S. chief information officer, Wasch said in a phone interview Thursday.

In September of last year, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn finalized a policy for state agencies to develop a gradual plan for migration to OpenDocument, beginning Jan. 1, 2007. The plan would involve phasing out the state's use of Microsoft's Office software suite. With Massachusetts one of the very first U.S. states to espouse such a decision, the move placed Quinn under intense public scrutiny and political pressure.

Quinn quit his job in early January after becoming in his own words "a lightning rod" with respect to any IT initiative under consideration by the Commonwealth. "A tragedy happened in Massachusetts," Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun, said in a phone interview Thursday. "Cynicism allowed a good man to be hounded out of his job for no reason."

Quinn's permanent replacement Louis Gutierrez has already pledged to continue the state's move towards OpenDocument.

If a similar situation was to occur now, the ODF alliance would help to support a CIO with white papers and case studies of successful ODF adoptions as ammunition to counter any naysayers, according to Wasch. One of the alliance's missions is to "remove the FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] factor of adopting OpenDocument," he said.

The American Library Association decided to join the ODF alliance at the inception of the organization to ensure that the voice of libraries and non-profit organizations is represented, according to Patrice McDermott, ALA deputy director, office of government relations. "It's a natural alliance for us because the goal of the ODF alliance is in tune with our goal to provide access to information," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "The alliance is a very positive development."

However, one issue the ALA is very concerned about is whether software using OpenDocument will be compatible with existing computer applications used by people with disabilities, McDermott said. She added that she's been assured that such issues will be resolved by the end of this year. "If it's not solved over the next nine months, we would have to withdraw from the alliance," McDermott said. "We can't be party to something that doesn't provide access to all."

The plan to put the ODF alliance together came about when a number of vendors met at IBM's offices in Armonk, New York, in early November last year, according to Sun's Phipps. "We've reached a nexus as we move from binary file formats to XML."

Wasch at SIIA agrees with Phipps. He believes that the alliance has come together at a "serendipitous time" as user demand for an open document format increases and major IT vendors are embracing the OpenDocument format. There's also a proliferation of devices on which users are creating electronic documents. "More documents are created by thumb on BlackBerrys and PDAs [personal digital assistants] than by fingers on desktops," Wasch said. "We need to make sure that documents are independent of the application that created them."

Microsoft meanwhile continues to tout its proposed Open XML specification and has declared publicly its preference of a number of open document standards to flourish in the future, not just OpenDocument. "Is Microsoft invited to the ODF alliance? Absolutely," Wasch said. "The door is open. Ultimately, I think they will adopt ODF."

The ODF Alliance's Web site is set to go live Friday at http://www.odfalliance.org/. The organization welcomes any interested party to join, according to Sun's Phipps.

An individual from SIIA will shortly be named to head the alliance and the members of the body's steering committee will also be identified, Wasch said.

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