Is OASIS in a document desert?

No, argues Kevin Tolly

Worried about dealing with .doc, .xls and .ppt files? Probably not — but the people at OASIS think you should be. OASIS has been at work since 2002 building up an open alternative to proprietary office file formats under its OpenDocument Format initiative. But what does all this mean to you?

To vendors such as Sun, IBM and Novell it is something users should write into every future office systems RFP. Not a big issue except that the incumbent provider of office software, Microsoft, does not support ODF and doesn’t intend to support it in its forthcoming Office 12 release.

If nothing else, the OASIS vendors can become a thorn in the side of Microsoft if they can convince large users to make ODF support mandatory. Should that be the case, Microsoft would need to divert development effort to come up with at least a crude implementation for each of its MS Office suite programs. Amusement aside, we need to return to the core question: “Does it matter to my company?”

Sun CEO Scott McNealy thinks it does. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, he calls on users to rebel against the lock-in of an unnamed vendor and demand ODF for all.

He certainly makes some good points. He writes that by letting an unnamed company based in Redmond, Washington, dictate file standards we could face a situation in which “in a few short years we may no longer be able to access our files if the format is upgraded. Or, we may be required to buy a new, expensive version of the software just to access our own thoughts.”

While you have to love the Orwellian overtones, is the situation that urgent?

I agree with the mission of OASIS and the notion of a document format that can’t be arbitrarily upgraded by a single vendor, but I think that the practical situation — at least today — is not nearly as desperate as we are being led to believe.

Without ODF, we are told, there is a barrier to exit — meaning we can’t grab our documents and transport them to a system of our choice. But is that really the case?

While there is no disputing that Microsoft gets to dictate its file formats, it is equally true that other vendors have figured out ways not only to read those files but also to let them be edited by non-Microsoft programs and passed back unharmed to be used by MS Office users.

Most MS Office files can be opened by the programs in the OpenOffice suite. Word documents can be opened and manipulated by many non-Microsoft word processing programs. While not all the files will come across perfectly, I don’t feel that my work is locked into Microsoft. If I can export Word documents from Microsoft in, say, RFT format, I have fairly portable information, even with ODF.

Even ancient information almost always has some program to unlock it. I recently found 20-year old files that were written using IBM’s DisplayWrite software. Twenty minutes later, I had a freeware program to convert them to ASCII text.

Sure, put ODF on your wish list, but above all, balance your short-term and long-term document needs.

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