Document formats and accessibility

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

There have been two recent announcements relating to document formats and they will have an impact on the accessibility market:

  • September 2nd 2007, the second ballot on the ISO/IEC ratification of Open XML show strong support for the standard but not sufficient for it to become a standard.
  • September 10th 2007, the community announced that IBM will be joining the community to collaborate on the development of software.

To understand the implications of these announcements needs some background information.

In November 2003 Microsoft announced that Office 2003 had been extended to support XML input and output. Microsoft defined a schema for this interchange commonly known as WordML see my articles article. IAccessible2 defines an interface between assistive technologies and applications such as OpenOffice.

IBM joined in September 2007 and will be making initial code contributions that it has been developing as part of its Lotus Notes product, including accessibility enhancements, and will be making ongoing contributions to the feature richness and code quality of Besides working with the community on the free productivity suite’s software, IBM will also leverage technology in its products.

So we now have two competing standards: Office OpenXML which is not yet, and may never become, a standard driven by Microsoft, and ODF which is a standard and which now has IBM support. How will this effect accessibility? The answer, I am afraid, is that having two standards is not good. The problem is that creating assistive technologies is a specialised task and the market is relatively small. Supporting both standards is going to be expensive and likely to lead to delays in implementing and supporting new functions.

Office OpenXML is a big standard. It is big because it needs to be able to support the long history of office suites. A significant amount of the standard should not be used in modern documents. One of the challenges will be to decide what part of the standard is relevant to new documents. My suggestion would be that assistive technologies only support the ‘modern’ part of the standard. If a user of an assistive technology has to access a document which includes any of the ‘archive’ parts then the document can be converted into a modern version. The conversion may result in a loss of some formatting, and the ability to edit in the way the original was edited, but this is unlikely to be an issue for the AT user as some formatting is lost/modified when accessing through assistive technologies anyway.

There are already tools available that can transform OpenXML into ODF and vice versa. They do a good enough job for most users, there is no loss in the content, or meaning, of the document—just a possibility of small differences in the formatting.

ODF is already a standard and has shown that it is robust and extensive enough to support the creation and distribution of new documents. ODF has not attempted to support all the ‘archived’ documents that OpenXML is designed to support. OpenXML will provide a mechanism for the long term archiving of old documents but it appears not to have any benefits over ODF for the creation and storage of new documents. This is not surprising given the background of each.

For AT developers in particular, and many other tool creators in general, it would be a great benefit if there was just one format for new documents. This would enable all the effort being used in the creation of robust and function rich tools rather than having to support two competing standards.

Given the support ODF is now getting it would be sensible if the OpenXML committee decided to align the standard with ODF so that OpenXML concentrated on the archiving issue rather than defining a new standard for all documents.