IBM adds muscle to Open Document Format

An uprising against proprietary document formats is growing, but can Office be dethroned?

It may seem to have started in Massachusetts, but the ideal behind the industrywide clamoring for open document formats isn't just an isolated government crusade. A full-scale rebellion against Microsoft's proprietary document formats may be in the making.

After its high-profile backing of ODF (Open Document Format), IBM has announced that early next year it will add support for ODF in its Workplace Managed Client 2.6, a bundle of productivity software that includes a thin-client word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation app. The product will join other ODF-supporting offerings from OpenOffice.org and Sun Microsystems. ODF 1.0, ratified in May by OASIS, creates an XML-based, open standard way to store and exchange documents.

Microsoft Office may be the undisputed king of productivity suites, but that balance is threatening to shift. Countries with emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, and India, and governments such as the State of Massachusetts have welcomed -- and in some cases, demanded -- open formats for documents and software, which leaves Microsoft's Office and other software programs out in the cold in many places around the globe.

The highly publicized proposal in Massachusetts requires compliance with ODF for government documents, which would mean the phasing out of Microsoft Office.

ODF supporters, led by IBM and Sun, have begun mobilizing a global effort to push ODF as a global standard format for documents. The companies hosted a meeting at IBM's campus in early November -- attended by representatives from Adobe Systems, Apple Computer, Computer Associates, Corel, Google, Intel, Nokia, OpenOffice.org, Oracle, Red Hat, and others -- to formalize those efforts.

The allegiances of vendors don't appear to be set in stone, however. In its recent announcement of plans to submit its Office Open XML document format to the International Standards Organization (ISO) in time for the launch of Office 12, Microsoft claimed the support of Apple and Intel, both of which had representatives quoted in the press release.

Microsoft's vow to release elements of Office to ISO has been criticized by some as an empty promise. A key supporter of ODF said Microsoft is using the move as an "end run" around having to support ODF. Companies can take a look at ISO standards, but they can't use them to build their own applications, said Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager at OpenOffice.org and chair of the group's governing council.

"With an open standard, any application can use it," Suarez-Potts said. "With an ISO standard, it's not quite the same thing. It just means you have a reference for it."

Furthermore, the essential elements and specifics of Microsoft's Open XML need to be scrutinized and proved over time, according to Stephen O'Grady, senior analyst at RedMonk.

"ODF has gone through a lengthy vetting process. What Microsoft is doing [with Office Open XML] is interesting, [but] people need enough time to go over it," O'Grady said.

Elizabeth Montalbano and Simon Taylor, IDG News Service, contributed to this article.

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