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ODF approval significant but no 'tipping point' for CIOs

The ISO adoption of OpenDocument Format is likely to fuel interest overseas of open standards, but for CIOs based in the U.S. there's still little incentive to switch.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has approved the OpenDocument Format (ODF) as an open source standard for the exchange of digital office documents. The news may spur adoption of ODF among European governments that require ISO approval, but experts said CIOs in U.S. businesses should base their decisions on other factors.

"ISO approval is no big deal to the typical American enterprise, but it can be a big deal to some European governments," said Gordon Haff, senior analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. "In general American enterprises don't care all that much about whether something is the de jure standard. They do care whether something is the de facto standard."

And there is a technical element -- how to migrate to ODF -- that needs to be addressed. This is not something you flick like a light switch.
Marino Marcich
managing directorODF Alliance
Haff said the ISO standardization will be most pertinent among European governments that mandate ISO approval before they adopt technology. Companies that do business with European governments will also be affected.

Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at Denver-based RedMonk, said the ISO approval of ODF does not represent a "tipping point," but "it is another step forward toward ODF being a viable and attractive option."

ODF is an open format based on XML that allows access to text, spreadsheet and presentation files regardless of the proprietary office applications that were used to create them. The technology has become increasingly important to organizations, especially governments, that need to maintain access to old records created by applications that are no longer in use.

One of the most high-profile adoptions of ODF in the United States is the state of Massachusetts, which has announced intentions to make ODF its standard format for all documents by January.

Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, the group that backs the OpenDocument Format, described the ISO approval as a "real boost" and a signal that "ODF has arrived."

"It's a powerful signal that an internationally pre-eminent standards body has adopted [ODF]," Marcich said.

Marcich said his organization, which is composed of 138 members, including software vendors, government organizations and industry giants such as EMC Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and Oracle Corp., will shift into education mode.

According to Marcich, fear and uncertainty are preventing businesses from adopting ODF. "There is a viable option out there. We've got to let them know that. And there is a technical element -- how to migrate to ODF -- that needs to be addressed. This is not something you flick like a light switch."

O'Grady said companies with a history of using Microsoft Office might have some headaches migrating to ODF. "You have to concern yourself with complex documents, spreadsheets with calculations, presentation documents with templates. Those types of things don't translate with full fidelity to ODF. At this point there are compelling reasons to use ODF and choose ODF, but they have to compete against enormous inertia. Microsoft is in the driver's seat."

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Microsoft, which dominates the office document industry, has created its own standard for open source documents, Microsoft Open XML, which the software giant has submitted to Ecma International, another leading standardization organization. It also plans to use the Open XML format in its next version of Office.

Microsoft Director of Standards Affairs Jason Matusow said in a statement that neither ODF nor Open XML alone can meet the archival needs of all businesses and governments. He said there are hundreds of industry-specific XML schemas in use, and ODF is yet another XML-based format in the market.

Matusow said ODF is also limited to working with open source office applications such as OpenOffice and StarOffice "and would not satisfy most of our Microsoft customers today. Yet we will support interoperability with ODF documents as they start to appear and will not oppose its standardization or use by any organization."

Haff said CIOs aren't really trying to decide between ODF and Microsoft Open XML. Instead, the real choice is between Microsoft Office and other office applications like the open source suite OpenOffice and Sun Microsystems' free suite StarOffice, which support ODF. Companies choosing between those software suites will be choosing between Microsoft Office's broader functionality and the costs savings associated with the free or low-cost application suites that support ODF.

"Today Microsoft Office is still a more functional product," Haff said. "With that said, OpenOffice is good enough for an awful lot of people, and I think it will tend to improve. We've really had stagnation in the office suite. We don't see big changes. The word processor, the spreadsheet and the presentation module -- those are all kind of mature and almost finished products, and the new stuff is going to happen outside of those products. There's very little reason to pay Microsoft for those products if there is no innovation going on."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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