Beyond office document formats

The current debate over office document formats misses the bigger challenge still facing us

Let’s cut to the chase in the Massachusetts/Microsoft brouhaha over office document formats. One possible outcome: Microsoft Office gains support for the OASIS OpenDocument format, either from Microsoft or from the open source community. Another outcome: Microsoft tweaks its Office XML licensing to conform to the definition of openness that governments are rightly insisting on.

I predict that one or the other of these outcomes will come to pass. Ideally they both will.

When the format debate is over, some critical issues will emerge from the fog. From my perspective, for example, both Microsoft Word and OpenOffice.org Writer are archaic solutions to the real needs being articulated by the likes of Massachusetts and the European Union. Both are conventional applications that, whether free or not, impose a heavy download, installation, and support burden on the people who use them.

If effective communication within and among governments and citizenries required these big guns then we’d have to find ways to accommodate them. But it just isn’t so. A mere fraction of the power of these multihundred-megabyte behemoths suffices for basic communication; the rest is overhead. Software delivered as a service through the Web -- simple, lightweight, and universally available -- is clearly the better way forward.

The format debate also presumes an archaic mode of information exchange: e-mail attachments. We work this way because it’s a habit our Web technologies don’t yet enable us to break. There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that online forms will continue to transform our means of gathering information, that hypertextual XML will make page-oriented technologies such as PDF obsolete as a means of publishing it, and that blogs, wikis, and their successors will become our primary means of collaborating around shared information.

In theory, governments should mandate standards, not implementations. But in practice they mandate implementations all the time. Recently, for example, I renewed my passport. The procedure was less painful than a decade ago. While I grumbled at having to convert my digital data and images to paper and snail-mail them, at least I was able to use Acrobat to fill in and print the form.

Of course, if I wasn’t an Acrobat user, I would have to become one. Then there’s the sheer overkill of this solution. Gathering basic facts from citizens is a problem better solved by the simpler and more universal technology of Web forms.

Enforcing rules about the structure and validity of that information is something we do today in the back-end systems that receive and process form data. Increasingly we’ll also be able to delegate to Web-based clients with next-generation e-forms capabilities. When we need to print those forms, we can run XML-to-PDF conversions, either server-side or client-side. But shouldn’t government commissions focus more on what office documents are becoming than what they once were?

Once we have an open document format -- and given XML’s protean transformability I don’t much care which one -- perhaps we can move on to the real challenge. I expect that Web-based software can meet all of the key requirements that are driving this debate, and should do so in ways that are native and ubiquitous. Governments advocating on our behalf should expect no less.

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