It’s been a few months since I’ve addressed the issue of the Massachusetts IT Department’s decision to consider the OASIS Open Document Format as their primary format for interoperability and generation of documents. The last couple of weeks has seen a number of significant new developments that all seem to point to the very real likelihood that ODF will in fact win the day.
According to a series of articles on Groklaw MA Asks: Can Anybody Out There Make MS Office Interoperate with ODF? and OpenDocument Foundation to MA: We Have a Plugin, the Massachusetts IT committee raised the question about whether Microsoft could produce some form of plug-in that could be added to the current version of Office to open, display and save ODF content. They hemmed and hawed, arguing (as they had before the EU) that they were missing critical documentation that needed to be available in order to generate such a plug-in and that it would take an undue burden of developer time during a period where they were moving close to the full release of the next version of Office.
Not long after this, however, there came a surprise announcement from the OpenDocument Foundation. Gary Edwards of the foundation reported to Massachussets that they had just developed (and were in the final stages of testing) just such a plugin that would work for the most recent version of Office … and back as far as Office 97. What this means is that anyone using any supported and most legacy versions of Office will be able shortly to work with ODF documents in Office, will be able to save out to ODF and will be able to accurately see any ODF content in the same way that they could via Open Office 2.0. The plugin will be freely available, and because it will work with Word, Excel, etc., people under the various Accessibility acts who use specialized readers from Office can also use those same ODF documents, one of the biggest stumbling blocks that the ODF standard had to hurdle.
Meanwhile, in another major triumph for the Open Document format, the International Standards Organization (ISO) announced, after a vote on May 1, that the ODF formats were accepted under ISO as ISO/IED 26300. This effectively means that they have significant weight in ISO processes and are effectively recognized world-wide as being THE standard for documents.
So what exactly does all of this imply? In a year when Microsoft has generally been facing problems with software delivery and the on-going EU anti-trust suit, the ODF victory is yet another blow, perhaps a crippling one for the Office team. Microsoft had been reluctant to make XML versions of Office formats available because the binary formats could effectively be controlled by obfuscation.
When the market demanded that they did produce XML versions in order to better enable workflow systems with document-based XML generation, by controlling the XML formats they could still continue changing that XML format in subsequent versions in order to “accomodate new features”, in essence reintroducing lock-in.
The combination of the OD Foundation’s plugin and the ISO move means that document management teams can effectively automate the conversion of all of their binary office document archives into a common, internationally recognized format regardless of the version of Office they have or the document versions they’re kept in.
It opens up the possibility that other governments (as well as schools and businesses) at all levels will begin exploring the possibility of saving out their documents into ODF while still keeping Office, but retaining the option of switching over to Open Office (or other ODF compliant editors) if and when they do an OSS conversion.
It makes it possible for other editors to create tools to a common standard while offering specialized services, rather than trying to be yet another general purpose suite, and I suspect that this in turn will be the crux for the disintegration of the suite itself as office suites once again become more specialized products - rememember that one of the key advantages of most suites has been the notion of interoperability between suite applications - with a common XML exchange format now acting as the proxy for that interoperability, that initial advantage gets lost.
Finally, it raises an interesting spectre. Google’s acquisition of Writely and similar efforts elsewhere will likely mean that the core capabilities of the Microsoft Office Suite, especially word processing and spreadsheet editing, are increasingly becoming more lightweight (frequently AJAX) applications that skirt the edges between being a desktop vs. a web application. With ODF, you will likely now see a proliferation of these microsuites that might result in the death of MS Office from a thousand small cuts.
The coming software age is moving out of the shadow of vendor lock-in. The irony here is that in the short term the ODF decision might actually help Microsoft, as companies that were thinking about migrating to Open Office might decide that it would be better to stay with their existing infrastructure if this gives them the same benefits. However, it makes that upgrade path to the NEXT version of MS Office far more difficult to justify, especially if there’s no real negative costs to staying with an existing version of Office. Of course, this is true far beyond Microsoft, and I have to wonder at what point we reach a stage where we have to admit that the vendor-driven model of software development is gone for good.
Kurt Cagle is the CEO of Metaphorical Web, Inc., an author and writer specializing in buzzword technologies ;-) and the Chairman of the SVG Open 2006 Conference in Victoria, BC, Oct 16-19, 2006.