news / tech talk

OpenDocument Format

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

OpenDocument Format. Heard of it? Hopefully you will and soon. OpenDocument format is already beginning to play a role in international and state contracts and is generally a good thing for most people on the planet.

What is it?
OpenDocument format is an open standards document format based on XML technology and supported by the open standards group OASIS as well as the International Standards Organization (ISO). It is also supported in industry by some folks you may have heard of including Sun, IBM, HP, Novell, and Adobe. Basically, its an open standard document format so you can create documents and have a decent chance of opening them with any of several software packages on several platforms. Using a program that supports it, you can save your document in a format that typically ends with .odt instead of .doc as you would for a document saved in Microsoft's proprietary Word document format.

Why is it?
OpenDocument came about as a means of providing an open standard for the public to create and share documents across multiple computer platforms and software packages. It simply removes single vendor lock-in. Currently, Microsoft is the de facto standard holder of document formats for most of the world through MS Office. MS Office continues to generate more than half of Microsoft's annual revenue and provides a stranglehold on the document market. On the good side, any standard (even a de facto one) increases interoperability and communications. In spite of the costs, this has been a form of benefit over the years though its also contributed to piracy for ordinary people to afford the benefits. On the downside, it is still essentially a monopoly on document formats and the software that can create and decipher those formats.

Who cares and why should I?
People that care include virtually all businesses, governments, and the public. Why? Because to create and read proprietary documents, you need to have the software that can do that. That software is expensive, nearly the cost of a new computer, and there is no competition to it. So the groups that are doing something about it include government bodies like the European Union and the State of Massachusetts. Both are actively advocating an open document format so that government agencies can avoid single-vendor lock-in of their document format. This will provide choices in word processing packages, avoid vendor lock-in, and generally keep costs down and flexibility high.

But is it any good?
Sure, the OpenDocument format will be the default format of the soon to be released and free OpenOffice 2.0 ( I'm using a pre-release version to write all my documents and I personally know of a large telecom provider that has evaluated it and is in the process of switching to it to reduce their corporate software costs. You won't have to use OpenOffice though, others who have pledged support include Sun's StarOffice and IBM's Workplace. In addition, you should soon see packages like KDE's Koffice, Abiword, and others adopting the OpenDocument format as well. You can read more about OpenDocument format at

Is it the end of the line for Microsoft and Office? Hardly, most corporations are glacial in changing things and MS is already gearing up their marketing machine with price cuts and semi-open standards like MS XML. They will press hard on government and corporate purchasers. They will likely do much much more if the standard starts to catch on. Remember, Office provides more than half of their corporate revenues. Think about what (and how much) that means. Think they'll sit still and let that go?

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business