Within days of OASIS' OpenDocument Format (ODF) suffering a political setback in Massachusetts (a drama which has yet to fully play itself out), many of Microsoft's competitors gathered in IBM-stronghold Armonk, NY on Friday, November 4 to plot the next steps for the fledgling XML-based document standard. Because some of what was discussed was apparently confidential, the press was not invited to observe the ODF Summit.
According to Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady who was present and who has published the best high level FAQ of the day's proceedings, the list of attendees went well beyond the shortlist of Microsoft competitors that were in one way or another involved in the deliberations that took place in Massachusetts. Whereas the names IBM, Sun, Adobe, HP, and Novell came up at one point or another in Massachusetts, Computer Associates, Corel, Google, Nokia, Oracle, Red Hat and Exchange-killer Scalix were present and accounted for at Friday's gathering.
The agenda apparently looked to address some of ODF's biggest challenges including a key weakness when it comes to how accessible ODF-compliant solutions are (or will be when they ship) to those with disabilities. By way of support from commonly used third party accessibility applications like JAWS that don't support anything in the ODF ecosystem, Microsoft Office is the first choice for those with disabilities such as visual impairments when it comes to working with electronic documents and productivity suites.
Lack of equally compelling ODF-compliant solutions for the disabled will be a major barrier to adoption by governments -- particuarly US-based governments like Massachusetts that have enacted legislation mandating the availability of highly accessible solutions to state employees with disabilities. The group that gathered in Armonk is apparently well aware of the obstacle and is making it a priority to fast track the development of tools that meet or beat products like JAWS.
Although O'Grady doesn't cite JAWS by name, he does say that "the vendor producing the tool used to make Microsoft Office accessibile via a tightly integrated scripting interface has been less than receptive to overtures from non-Microsoft vendors. That's worth watching." Should Microsoft be looking to use accessibility as a lock-in leverage point at the same time that Microsoft's competitors need ODF-compliant applications to go from 0 to 60 in terms of accessibilty prowess, the two camps could end up in a bidding war to acquire JAWS developer Nanopac, Inc. in order to secure their respective agendas.
Meanwhile, the cast of attendees to the Armonk was significant for another reason: many of them are not traditionally thought of as players in any of the major document technology ecosystems. That said, at the end of the day, what isn't a document? As I've suggested before, a standard like ODF could evolve into a form of digital DNA that not only allows information to easily interoperate between different vendors' products, but also between thick, thin, and service oriented offerings. For example, and email that's created in a thin-client based email system like Google's or Scalix's could be saved in ODF format as it evolves to more of a mission critical business document and then edited by thick or thin office solutions on PCs or in browsers as well as on mobile devices such as those from Nokia. As the roster of supporters grows and as more organizations begin to appreciate the potential that a standard document format like ODF can achieve, my guess is that Microsoft will have little choice but to support it or turn its own MSXML-based file formats over to some sort of standards body or multi-party stewarded consortium.