ODF – the state of play - The future of ODF under OASIS, now that the standards war is won.

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Content Copyright © 2015 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt

ODF – open document format – is an open, XML-based rich document format that has been adopted as the standard for exchanging information in documents (spreadsheets, charts, presentations and word processing documents), by many governments and other organisations (see, for example, here), including the UK Government. This is despite strong opposition by Microsoft; but I have seen Microsoft’s proposed “open XML” standard and, frankly, it is huge and horrid (in the word of standards, these go together). If I remember correctly, the early draft I saw even incorporated recognition of early Excel leap-year bugs into the standard.

ODF is now a pukka ISO standard, maintained  by OASIS, under the proud banner: “The future is interoperability”. 

My personal thoughts, below, are prompted by an ODF session at ApacheCon Core titled “Beyond OpenOffice: The State of the ODF Ecosystem” held by Louis Suárez-Potts (community strategist for Age of Peers, his own consultancy, and the Community Manager for OpenOffice.org, from 2000 to 2011), and attended by very few delegates – perhaps a sign of current level of interest in ODF within the Apache community. Nevertheless, and I am talking about the ODF standard here, not Apache Open Office (which is currently my office software of choice) or its Libre Office fork (which seems to be where the excitement, such as it is, is, for now), the standards battle, or one battle, has been won; we have a useful Open Document Format, standardised by a recognised and mature standards organisation, and even Microsoft Office supports it. That’s good.

So what could be the problem? Well, I don’t care whether I use ODF from Open Office, Libre Office or even Office 365, I just want to be sure that everyone else can read my ODF documents (with a .odt, .ods or .odp extension, for text, presentation or spreadsheet, respectively), with whatever software they like; and that they’ll either see exactly the functionality and formatting I see; or a well defined (and transparent) subset of this. I also want to read proprietary formats correctly, so that I can save them as ODF documents without losing information or formatting. Document interoperabiity enables collaboration and sharing of information in the business – I see providing this as  a governance issue.

In other words, I don’t particularly want a standard, I want vendor-independent Interoperability – which means, to me, widely available, and affordable, interoperability testing suites – using easily-available tools. But designing and managing interopability testing suites is expensive and they can either be kept expensive (which keeps small innovators out of the market – not a good idea) or subsidised by a big player (presumably one that is confident that its own implementation of the ODF standard won’t fall foul of its own tests – if that is possible). And perhaps there are avantages for big players in claiming standards compliance with slightly incompatible implementations of ODF, so that businesses find it easier to stick with the one supplier.

I note that there is a OASIS Open Document Format Interoperability and Conformance (OIC) Technical Committee – but that is no longer active. I’m afraid that I don’t see a huge focus on practical interoperabilty initiatives around ODF implementations and I don’t have huge confidence that I’ll be able to read a complicated document from Microsoft correctly in Open Office. If it crashes, that’s OK, up to a point; but if it reads and deliverers incomplete or incorrect information, without an error message, that’s scary. How many people, even in organisations ostensibly standardised on ODF, are still using Microsoft proprietary document formats in practice, because they anticipate problems if they don’t? Lack of confidence in verified Interoperability is a huge problem, if we want to get away from having access to the information we depend on for business tied to commercial software vendors’ agendas.

Nevertheless, perhaps ODF adoption outside of my environment is strong and I just don’t see it – Open Office has been downloaded a lot of times. But Microsoft .doc (or .docx) is still the lingua franca I see. The latest Office should open ODF files too, but I haven’t tried it (I don’t have a licenced copy of MS Office – well, I do, but not installed and not a recent version) – and I still read of Microsoft Office users out there who have trouble upgrading to read docx files, let alone ODF, anyway. So, even though I use Open Office, I tend to send people .doc files, if I want them read without complaint.

I can imagine some things that could really help ODF take off. A free “ODF lite”, for example; so that the smallest app developer could put in useful ODF access capabilities into the smallest app. An ODF implemented as “free” open-source widgets, and small re-usable free-to-use components generally, so that a decent measure of ODF support is a no-brainer wherever it might be appropriate. And, a version of ODF should certainly be accessible via HTML5, because that is where documents, for many of us, are going – onto phones and tablets. One issue, however, is that supporting rich documents is quite complicated.

What this really means, is that I see a need for funding of ODF implementation, innovation and interoperability testing, driven by a genuine longterm vision for ODF, and which is not tied to a particular vendor, even if a vendor supplies some of the resources needed. Unfortunately, in the short term, there is little incentive for anyone to fund any of this – SUN used to support Open Office and IBM used to actively promote ODF, but SUN is no more and IBM seems to have lost active interest. What we have, a defacto standardisation around MS Office formats, works well enough, although with some risk – and Office can probably read ODF documents well enough to save them as MS formats, if necessary. There are long term costs and risks assciated with being tied into a “standard” owned by a single vendor – I see this as a governance issue – but (these days especially), short trerm considerations usually win out.

So, who could provide this funding and the resources necessary for active ODF interoperability testing for Office packages? The big vendors, for whatever reason, seem satisfied with the status quo. Even national governments who support ODF, such as Italy, Germany and the UK), seem to allow the continuing use of MS Office formats, in practice. The Apache Software Foundation doesn’t allow the Apache Open Office project to accept the sort of donations it would need to drive a wider ODF vision – which will probably drive it into the Apache “attic” for dormant projects; it has done good work, which will continue to be available, but it doesn’t have many developers left. There is Libre Office, of course, which seems to be better marketed and has more of a “buzz” to it, but I don’t meet lots of people using it outside of the project enthusiasts, although it claims to be “one of the friendliest and fastest growing projects in the free and open source world”. And even Libre Office (like Open Office) often fails to format Powerpoint presentations correctly

Perhaps my readers can comment on whether they see ODF as ever becoming ubiquitous – and suggest who might fund it without taking it over. In the meantime, I guess I’ll be off exploring Libre Office, which seems to be the main hope for popularizing a vendor-independent document environment… Although, I must admit that I still find that Open Office supports most of what I need to do – I just can’t send anyone an Open Office ODF document with any confidence that the recipient will be able to read it.


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  1. There is an interesting discussion developing over on IT Director, where this blog is syndicated. I made some errors – “LibreOffice is not a fork of Apache OpenOffice. Both are descended from an earlier office suite called OpenOffice.org (which is confusingly also the site where Apache OpenOffice is now hosted)”; Apache OpenOffice came after LibreOffice. Also, both OpenOffice and LibreOffice are single words. Mea culpa. I also overlooked the ODF Plugfests, although I’m not sure they address the whole issue, and there is an “ODFLite” at odf.org, which does look useful to me. But the real reason to go over to IT Director is the contribution from Dennis E. Hamilton, current Chair of the Apache OpenOffice Project Management Committee. He raises some interesting issues, but his comments are rather too long to precis here.

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