Open Documents Panel at GOSCON

I sat on a panel today at the Government Open Source Convention with folks from SUN, IBM, Adobe, and the OpenDocument Foundation. I have been remiss in blogging as of late due to an absolute tidal wave of work that has taken time away from posting out my thoughts. I'm sure some of you have been deeply disappointed with my silence. :-)

Before I share my thoughts on the panel - I would like to thank Andy Stein (Director of IT for the City of Newport News, VA)  for doing such a great job moderating the panel. Unlike some panels where things rat-hole and the breadth of an issue doesn't get touched upon - Andy kept us in line and moving through topics. Not easy with five opinionated people sharing the stage.

There were two things that struck me from the conversation:

  1. The discussion around a single format is clearly still very active - but seems more and more disconnected from reality every day.  
  2. Detractors of Open XML are so intent on tearing down the standard, they have lost sight of the broader goals around open documents.

Single Format:

The panel started with a presentation from the OpenDocument Foundation. This is an organization whose charter states that they will promote ODF. (I almost want to write that twice...) They are now saying that commercial interests have so distorted the goals of ODF that they have decided a different document format is really the way to go. They are advocating a move to the W3C Compound Document Format.

Ok, I know Rob Weir has already written a big piece on this and is working hard to distance the real ODF crowd from the...well...unreal ODF crowd. More on this later.

As I mentioned, the panel also had Jim King, the technical lead for Adobe's ISO efforts on PDF. Ah, here is a different document format that is rather broadly used as well. I would question Jim's statement that there are more documents in PDF than in any other format. That is most certainly true online - but saved on hard drives around the world? My guess is that MS Office formats would be more common - but that is conjecture on my part. But I digress. The fact is, they have done innovative work on document formats of a different sort and are standardizing that work. But, Jim went on to share the fact that they too have a "XML friendly" document format up on their site for you to use as well.

And, there is ODF.

And there is UOF.

And there are >100 vertical industry document formats using XML.

And (and this is a biggie) these formats progress and change over time so ODF 1.0 docs will need to be addressed by apps built only to work with ODF 1.2 (for example)


So, I am a bit baffled with the "there should be only one" discussion still going on. Is it possible that document formats represent a different space than something like a network protocol? That ultimately, the document formats really are a representation of features/functions of the apps that use them, and that since this is software - translation really is the answer? Hasn't that always been the answer? Isn't that why software is SO VERY different from the physical world?

Tearing Down Instead of Building Up

I really don't want to point fingers or get into an issue of personal style here. The panel members were all professionals working on things they care deeply about. All good on that point. I am just not convinced that putting so much effort into tearing down Open XML actually achieves the stated goals of those interested in the benefits of open documents.

Open XML will be broadly used throughout the world. I don't think this is in question today. Be it through the negative lens applied by many to the adoption rate of Microsoft Office - or through my own bias of the fact that we are seeing hundreds of implementations with the promise of many, many more - it is going to be used.

So, we get back to a fundamental question - is it a good thing for Open XML to be a standard vs. something completely controlled by Microsoft?

Before many of the pro-ODF crowd flame me - I reject your claims that it is still under our control today. the TC at Ecma working on this is made up of 20+ orgs. and the long-term maintenance proposal of the JTC-1 spec has already been proposed to keep the JTC-1 and Ecma specs in line with each other (snarky aside: this has not been the case with ODF 1.1 and 1.2...maybe it will happen with 1.3).

It is fundamentally better to have the specification be available as an international standard considering the global adoption of Open XML. The core team focused on tearing down Open XML are acting against the interests of tens of thousands of organizations, millions of users, and certainly most governments around the world.


Anyway - it was an interesting day today. Thanks to the other panel members for a really sharp conversation.