China aims to set a new office doc standard

XML-based formats like UOF could reduce Microsoft's document domination

What office document formats will your organization support next year? The answer used to be simple: You'd standardize on Microsoft Office, just like everybody else.

With ODF (OpenDocument Format) gaining momentum, however, it seems likely that you'll have to contend with at least two different document standards from now on. Corel has already announced that the forthcoming version of its WordPerfect office suite will support ODF in addition to Microsoft's Office OpenXML. But just when the industry was starting to get comfortable with the idea of two competing formats, now along comes a third.

The Uniform Office Format (UOF) was first conceived in 2002, but don't feel bad if you don't remember hearing about it. You probably haven't -- that is, not unless you've been living in the People's Republic of China for the past few years.

Homegrown technology standards, developed in parallel to activity in the rest of the world, are becoming routine for the Chinese. China has its own cellular phone standards, its own digital media types, and even its own microprocessors.

These aren't simple knockoffs like the bootleg DVDs and designer clothes you can find in Shanghai markets. By implementing locally developed standards, Chinese technology companies can keep up with the unique requirements in their country, many of which are determined by edicts of the Communist government. It also gives them a competitive advantage against more established foreign vendors that don't track China's standardization efforts.

In most of the world, Microsoft dominates the market for office productivity applications. In China, however, there are at least four other domestically developed office suites to choose from.

According to Wu Zhi-gang, deputy director of the China Electronics Standardization Institute 's Information Technology Research Center, one of the key impediments to more widespread adoption of these Chinese-developed solutions is lack of interoperability. Standardizing on UOF would allow documents created by any one of the application suites to be opened by all the others while still allowing the software to compete on features and functionality.

"It is not suitable to let the public and important information be controlled by a single vendor," said Ni Guangnan of the China Academy of Engineering, speaking at the Open Standards, IPR, and Innovation International Conference in Beijing in November. "If UOF, which based on XML, can be promoted, there would be a phase of equal competition in office software, and the good performance/price ratio of homemade office would be fully demonstrated."

The sheer population of China is enough to ensure that UOF will become a significant player on the global IT stage. And although no plans have yet been announced to incorporate UOF support into Western office productivity applications such as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org, that doesn't mean China plans to remain an island unto itself. Plans are already underway to "harmonize" the UOF and ODF standards so that transferring documents between the two formats will be essentially painless.

As the old joke goes, "The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from." Every time you turn around, there seems to be another so-called standard vying for your attention. In this case, however, the proliferation of office document standards can only be seen as a good thing.

As end-users increasingly adopt open, well-documented standards based on widely accepted technologies such as XML, the influence within the industry of de facto, proprietary standards will begin to wane. With China developing its own standards and ODF enjoying increasing popularity in both the U.S. and the European Union, the days when office documents are synonymous with Microsoft may be drawing to a close.

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