January 24, 2006 5:01 pm

Progress towards openness is being watched carefully

Many in the software industry are watching progress made in Massachusetts by the US state’s government in its aim to establish an open document file format across its executive branch.

The policy was finalised in the autumn and has survived political siege, loss of key personnel, Microsoft’s negative public relations and opposition from people with disabilities.

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The move provides an opportunity to bring data-sovereignty and long-term data access, as well as bring back competition and innovation to application software markets. Even in these early days, the OpenDocument format has been embraced by such demanding organisations as the city of Munich, the British Library and the US Library of Congress. This should be no surprise because government organisations with their cavernous archives are among the most data- and document-sensitive customers.

Early versions of OpenDocument have been around since 2001 as the defaults in OpenOffice and StarOffice (which have tens of millions of users worldwide); the final OpenDocument 1.0 specification was ratified by its steward group in May 2005.

Against OpenDocument, the format proposed by Microsoft lacks openness. Microsoft’s approach is to dress its Windows Vista-tied file formats from the upcoming Office 12 in approvals by the standards bodies, ECMA International and the International Organization for Standardization. But this may not gain acceptance in an industry more conscious of the benefits of open software standards and open, shared document formats than five years ago, the last time Microsoft launched an important advance.

The Microsoft file format, called Office Open XML, is not so open, in fact. Microsoft’s Alan Yates called the format specification sent in December to ECMA “. . . utterly, completely, perpetually open . . .” yet the 2,000-page specification reveals proprietary application and system calls to Office and Windows that are unacceptable for a format called “open”. And it has security vulnerabilities that would never have been included in an openly-developed collaborative specification. These problems add complexity, obstruct functionality or endanger users if the format is to operate with non-Microsoft applications or other operating systems platforms.

This appears to be simply another oversight in a rushed submission. Some observers of software standards have expressed concern for ECMA and ISO because their reputations may suffer after an ignominious rubber stamping of Microsoft’s proprietary and insecure format.

Chief information officers in many countries are watching carefully the progress made this year by Massachusetts OpenDocument policy and software deployment. The policy’s go-live date of January 1 2007, may have to move if OpenDocument-enabled software applications (OpenOffice, StarOffice, IBM’s Lotus Workplace, KOffice, to name the leading contenders) do not match the accessibility integration Microsoft’s Office and Windows flagships enjoy with the leading third-party Assistive Technology products.

These include expensive screen readers, magnifiers, keyboard and mouse controls and text-to-speech converters.

With such outstanding questions, few US state chief information officers can be blamed for standing on the sidelines.

Anyone who has imagined typing a memo on a PC with the monitor turned off and expect the formatting to be correct would understand the reaction against ETRM 3.5 and OpenDocument from representatives of people with disabilities. Given the disruptive changes around XML-based file formats, there will be an increase in the rate of innovation and competition for Assistive Technologies that integrate with a PC. There is already a growing number of general OpenDocument-ready office suite applications lining up in Wikipedia.

Disabled people understand that working with a format such as OpenDocument introduces benefits witnessed before only with the TCP/IP standard and the birth of the internet. OpenDocument offers a chance for universal documents to work with software programming interfaces that are, for once, visible. Anyone can see the benefit of that.

Sam Hiser is a systems consultant and O’Reilly author based in New York

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