Renewing ODF Advocacy

Sunday, 2008-June-08 at 15:18

In view of the news that Microsoft Office 2007’s upcoming service pack will add support for ODF 1.1 to the product, including the ability to make ODF the default format, I think it is now time to again advocate that state, local, and national government agencies move all their data into the vendor-neutral ODF format.

While we do not yet know how well or how poorly MS Office 2K7 will read and write ODF, their previous objection that their product could not compete in an ODF-default environment is flattened. About one year from now, the newest version of MS Office will have an equal chance to compete in such an environment.

Goal one in any file format requirement is to ensure that the entire organization and all of its employees and processes can speak a common language. One thing we don’t want is for department X’s work to have to be re-done by department Y, because the two departments use incompatible data formats. A related goal is for suppliers and customers to also have the ability to exchange documents with the organization’s staff members. With Microsoft’s participation, ODF is the format for organizational data.

Another important consideration, especially in governmental scenarios, is continued long-term access to data stored in any particular file format. There are dozens of formats that were used by some specific word processor or spreadsheet application, now departed. In some cases, that data may be gone with the application that produced it. In others, someone may need to do quite a bit of research to reverse engineer a usable import filter for importing data stored in that format into a more current application. In those situations, we really do not want to use a format that is used only by one vendor, nor one that is protected by patents (someone could get into trouble for enabling you to access your data after the original product is no longer available). A secret format, not publicly specified (or not completely specified) is also a format that may blow up in someone’s face.

For various reasons, this is again a place where ODF stands out.

A third consideration, and an important one, is that data formats need to be vendor neutral and multiply implemented. Office software has improved very little since about 1997, but in that time period, having a single vendor dominate the market has greatly increased the price one must pay to acquire the software. It has also led to allegations of timing “upgrades” to match the need for more cash, as format tweaks require everyone that corresponds with someone using the new format to also upgrade to the new version. Multiply-implemented vendor-neutral formats favor the purchaser and end-user over the vendor. If vendor A’s product downloads photos from the Mars landers, but you don’t need or want that feature, buy vendor B’s product that doesn’t do that. The actual data you produce is interchangeable.

Even better, if vendor A comes out with a rotten upgrade to their operating system, you can use vendor C’s product that has the ability to run on some competing operating systems. Not that I’m picking on a certain vendor that did come out with a rotten upgrade to their market-leading operating system. We’re all ecumenical here.

For more, see this. It is written in support of last year’s AB-1668 in the California Legislature. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get the state to reconsider later this year or early next year.

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