State of the Empire – #3 Open Document Format (ODF) Standardization

Historically, another immense barrier to alternative Operating System adoption was Microsoft’s stranglehold on the Office document formats (DOC, XLS, PPT). These formats have become the de-facto standard in business, education, and personal computing – most definitely one of Microsoft’s great success stories.

Until recently, the dependence on Microsoft for Office and its associated file formats had not been broadly questioned. Companies and open source projects have made large scale efforts to break this dependence by way of trying to support the Microsoft formats as much as possible. It is unfortunate, however, that despite great work by projects like OpenOffice and AbiWord the level of compatibility achieved is not to the point where one can freely swap documents between them with no risk of losing any aspect of the original document. This being said, even if document parity was achieved this ultimately only breaks the dependency on having no choice but to buy your office software from Microsoft, it does not change that Microsoft controls the format of the document and thus how it lives and dies in the future.

Large companies and government organizations have started to see their older documents ‘expiring’ as a result of losing backwards compatibility in newer versions of Microsoft Office products. This has raised concerns about how to deal with long-term archival of information to ensure it is not lost as Microsoft changes file formats and ends support of old versions of Microsoft office. To this end, a push for a document format standardized by ISO has increased to the critical point where both Microsofts Office Open XML (OOXML) format and the ODF format were presented to ISO for evaluation as a standard. In a landmark decision ISO has initially turned down Microsoft’s application for ISO standardization and approved the ODF format. This approval as an ISO standard paves the way for widespread adoption within large organizations who need to ensure that their documents live on indefinitely and their fate is not dictated by product decisions within Microsoft.

If this standardization does prove to drive the switch-over to ODF within governments and other organizations it is also possible that this would produce a trickle-on effect to the average user as this format becomes increasingly more common and supported within most Office applications, both client side and web based. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will take the step of supporting this format natively within Microsoft Office but it will definitely be interesting to see how things progress here as this is one of the critical barriers today in keeping people locked into the Windows platform.

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