OpenDocument vs. Office Open XML

What are they? There are two candidates vying to become the “open standard” document formats for word processing files, spreadsheets and presentations: the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards’ (OASIS) OpenDocument formats and Microsoft’s Office Open XML Formats.

Why do we need new standards for office documents? To make it easier to extract information from documents. Both OpenDocument and Office Open XML are based on the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), a more generic Web-oriented standard for describing data in a document or form. Any XML-compatible system could read the data contained in an XML document and perform actions based on the data. For example, a company could tag electronic invoices with specific data fields (such as “part number”); then, someone could use search software that understands standard XML to, say, retrieve all documents that include a specific part number.

When will they be available? IBM and Sun Microsystems already sell office suites that handle OpenDocument formats, and other products, such as the open-source OpenOffice software, also support the standard. Microsoft’s next version of the Office suite (code-named Office 12) will use Office Open XML Formats by default and is scheduled to ship in the second half of 2006.

And these are both “open” formats? That depends on what you mean by “open.” OpenDocument backers say their formats, unlike Microsoft’s, were developed collaboratively by multiple vendors and other groups, and are maintained by OASIS, a neutral consortium. Basically, the OpenDocument camp believes a standard format that isn’t controlled by Microsoft—which has more than a 95% share of the office applications market, according to Gartner surveys of business users—will loosen the company’s grip since customers won’t need to buy Microsoft Office to read or create documents. “We have broken this control point at the document level,” says Bob Sutor, IBM’s vice president of standards.

What’s Microsoft’s position? Microsoft currently does not plan to support OpenDocument. Officially, Microsoft says that’s because it has not received “strong customer demand” to adopt it.

Have any organizations decided to adopt OpenDocument? Yes, the most prominent being the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which plans to standardize on the format by January 2007. The initiative was championed by the state’s former CIO, Peter Quinn, as part of a policy to use only standards-based desktop software. Quinn resigned in December 2005, citing pressure from pro-Microsoft state politicians.

Is Microsoft worried OpenDocument will lead customers to switch to other office applications? Perhaps. However, Brian Jones, a lead program manager for Microsoft Office, points out that other vendors’ applications, including those from IBM and Sun, are already able to read and write documents that use Microsoft’s existing proprietary Office formats.

So, how “open” are the Microsoft formats? Microsoft says Office Open XML is open in that the formats conform to standard XML and that anyone can use them. Also, the company last fall submitted the formats to Ecma International, a technical standards body, for consideration as a specification—a move seen as a response to the concerns raised by the state of Massachusetts and others about Microsoft’s control of formats. But Gartner analyst Rita Knox says she doesn’t expect Ecma to release a specification based on Microsoft’s formats until early 2007. Meanwhile, in September 2005, OASIS submitted OpenDocument for consideration as a standard to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Won’t the new Microsoft XML document formats be incompatible with the old proprietary ones? Yes, but Microsoft promises that Office 12, in addition to natively supporting XML-based documents, also will be fully compatible with older formats. In addition, the company plans to release updates for Office 2000, Office XP and Office 2003 to let them read and edit Office Open XML formats.