ODF and Open XML

The ODF to Open XML Translator Project recently released their August CTP. This is a collaborative project to build a set of tools that will allow organizations that have standardized on Microsoft Office to work with ODF (Open Document Format) documents as produced by Sun's StarOffice and the open-source office suite OpenOffice. For more information about the details of the translator project, see the links in this article on OpenXmlDeveloper.org.

The ODF translator project eliminates many of the issues surrounding two inter-related technology management decisions: standardization of desktop applications, and standardization of file formats. Now it's possible for an organization to look at standardization on Microsoft Office applications based on their functionality and features, even if that same organization has a broader mandate to work with the ODF file format. The state of Massachusetts offers a great example of how this can work.

Last year, former Massachusetts Information Technology Division CIO Peter Quinn made plans to standardize Massachusetts on ODF by January 2007. This might have forced state employees and citizens to stop using Microsoft Office, the software that most of them already know and use. It might have also forced conversion of huge numbers of documents and loss of various functionality in those documents, since ODF doesn't support all of the functionality that Office users can store in the old binary formats or the new Open XML file formats. And since ODF applications don't include accessibility options like screen magnifiers -- which have been available in Office for many years -- it's possible that disabled persons would have reduced access to state documents after the move to ODF.

But Quinn's replacement, CIO Louis Gutierrez, has decided that the ODF translator project means that the state of Massachusetts won't have to accept those types of problems, expenses, and limitations. In a letter to the state's Information Technology Advisory Board this week, he pointed out that "technology that did not exist at the time of the policy formulation--namely various plug-in or translator components that can be added to Microsoft Office to allow it to read/write to OpenDocument format (ODF)" will make it possible for state workers to continue using Microsoft Office. Here's a News.com article with more information on the announcement.

This decision is consistent with the Vision statement in the original proposed Enterprise Information Technology Architecture published last year by the Massachusetts IT Division: "Information is no longer viewed as an exclusive agency asset but is leveraged and re-used throughout the enterprise while observing appropriate privacy and security protections. Electronic records are preserved in open formats that allow for optimal electronic records conservation and availability to the public over long periods of time." I'd say that sums up the case for open document formats pretty well.

It's great to see the state of Massachusetts taking a leadership role in how governments can best protect and preserve the documents they create. And as the debate about file formats continues, it will be interesting to see what Massachusetts will conclude after looking closely at issues such as custom schema support, full fidelity with existing documents, and performance.