ODF vs. OpenXML

Convincing customers they have the better technology is the weapon of choice when it comes to winning business battles in high tech First let's make one thing clear. At the highest level, ODF (Open Document Format) vs. OpenXML is a battle between two business competitors, IBM and Microsoft, each of which views itself as threatened by the other. Despite what you read below, this is not a column about technology;

Convincing customers they have the better technology is the weapon of choice when it comes to winning business battles in high tech

First let's make one thing clear. At the highest level, ODF (Open Document Format) vs. OpenXML is a battle between two business competitors, IBM and Microsoft, each of which views itself as threatened by the other.

Despite what you read below, this is not a column about technology; it's about business strategy. What may mislead you is that when high-tech companies battle, technology is typically the tactical weapon of choice.

IBM and Microsoft have been in a battle for supremacy ever since they parted ways in 1991 over OS/2 and Windows.

As unlikely as it sounds, the current battle is over an open file format for saving files, ODF or OpenXML, especially for word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation documents but not limited to those.

To see whether I could sort out the differences between these formats, I gave both companies a call.

Supported by Big Blue and many other high-tech companies, ODF is a standard both of the ISO and OASIS, which has about 300 members. OpenXML is supported by a smaller European standards group, ECMA International, which has 21 members, 20 of which voted to make it a standard, with only IBM voting no. OpenXML has also been proposed to the ISO and will be voted on in September.

If OpenXML adoption is preferred, it closes the door on the opportunity for IBM to create a path to a myriad of IBM/Lotus on-premises and Web 2.0 products for such things as collaboration, unified communications, productivity software ,and even its WebSphere middleware platform.

If on the other hand, ODF adoption, especially with government entities, grows over time it could have a viral effect and threaten Microsoft's largest revenue producing product, Office, and help IBM regain market share it lost to Outlook and Exchange Server as well.

To that end, it seems naïve to run stories -- as many publications have, including The Wall Street Journal -- posing as if they have uncovered some horrible truth about Microsoft lobbying legislative entities against adopting ODF as a governmental standard for file formats. This is capitalism. What do you expect Microsoft to do?

The first curious thing I noticed in investigating this file-format battle is that Bob Sutor, IBM vice president of open source and standards, refers to OpenXML exclusively as OOXML.

When I asked Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, when one should use OOXML and when OpenXML, he told me to refer to it format only as OpenXML.

In other words, the battle lines even include nomenclature.

OOXML, when said fast sounds awfully like "Uh-Oh XML," while OpenXML sounds far more user-friendly.

Think this is inadvertent? Don't bet on it.

With each side having a great deal invested in gaining the upper hand, "uh-oh technology" is not quite what Microsoft would to want associate with its brand.

Beyond the name-calling, Sutor believes ODF alone offers a way for users to exchange documents regardless of the application used to write them. And it can be done in an editable form, which isn't the case with PDFs, another popular file format.

IBM's Sutor says that, although Microsoft has published all the specs for OpenXML, those specs total 6,000 page (12 reams of paper), which makes it almost impossible for anyone but Microsoft to incorporate the specs in a new productivity suite, thereby crowning Microsoft Office effectually the de facto standard, according to Sutor.

"Microsoft is trying to write a new chapter in lock-in on products using standard as the basis for this," Sutor says, adding that any organization that requires OpenXML -- or as he says, "OOXML" -- will force themselves into a Microsoft-only corner. "While it will be theoretically possible to do another implementation, it won't happen."

The best analogy I read was one that said Microsoft Office is like prescription medicine and ODF is the generic version.

Microsoft's Robertson and Jean Paoli, general manager for interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft, see it quite differently.

Robertson says that despite 6,000 pages of documentation there is already an implementation from DataViz for Palm OS, one by a company called Numeric for spreadsheets, that Novell has an implementation of OpenXML for OpenOffice on Suse Linux, and that Corel has announced an implementation for WordPerfect. "Sun is working on an implementation as well," Robertson says.

Paoli says ODF reflects what OpenOffice can do. OpenXML reflects the capabilities that Microsoft Office has.

As far as those 6,000 pages of specs is concerned, there are 350 pages in the OpenXML spec alone -- half of the entire ODF spec -- just to describe spreadsheet capabilities, which ODF doesn't have, Paoli says. For example, ODF can't describe or calculate a formula in a spreadsheet.

"It may sound amazing. They are working on it now. But the current standard doesn't have it," Paoli tells me.

In addition, ODF is not backward-compatible with Excel -- or any other Office file format -- so you can't migrate old Excel files to ODF.

"The Office plug-in from OpenOffice does not support that," Paoli says.

Robertson and Paoli gave me many more examples, to the point that they say OpenXML and ODF are not even competing products, like in the way HTML does not compete with PDF.

Integration with other business data is more problematic with ODF, Robertson adds. OpenXML reads custom schema so that a program can identify the kind of information that is inside a document in order to send it to a back-end process and reuse it, say, for an ERP system. Because OpenXML can define and understand the structure of data, it can pull data out of a document and map it to populate a database.

"You cannot do that with ODF," Roberston says.

Interestingly, both sides see the differences between the two formats as a matter of offering more choice to the user, and both Sutor and Robertson used those words to describe why their format is best.

"Governments need to choose the format that meet their needs." I don’t know who said that, but both believe their solution meets that requirement.

Where do I stand? Well, at the risk of getting a lot of hate mail saying I am in Microsoft's pocket, if what Robertson and Paoli say about OpenXML and ODF is correct, then I think OpenXML is needed, at least until ODF becomes backward-compatible with older Office file formats and offers the capabilities large organizations require in their productivity solutions to run their business.

What you shouldn't expect is any meeting of minds between the two companies. However, while this may appear to be a battle to the death, I don’t see the fight over file formats as Armageddon. That will have to wait for another day.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.