Yesterday, when Novell announced that one of the first fruits to be born out of its newly minted legal relationship with Microsoft would be a plug-in to OpenOffice.org that would allow the open source based office suite to open or save documents in Microsoft's Open Office XML (OO-XML) file format, I had a tough time parsing through the text of the company's press release. Would the same functionality found in Novell's distribution of OpenOffice.org be available with no strings attached to the larger OpenOffice.org open source project? To get that and other questions answered, I checked in with Novell's director of marketing Justin Steinman and here's how the line of questioning went:
ZDNet: Novell will be introducing support for Microsoft's OO-XML file format into OpenOffice.org which is normally thought of as an open source-based competitor to Microsoft Office, isn't that correct?
Steinman: That is correct. You are seeing today the first fruits of the interoperability agreement between Novell and Microsoft that we signed on November 2nd.
ZDNet: You probably saw the petition by Bruce Perens not too long ago, that suggested, by virtue of the legal deal with Microsoft you just spoke of, Novell would be entering into some arrangements with Microsoft whereby some sort of odd mixture of proprietary and open source code could result: a mixture that wouldn't necessarily be available to all open source products and maybe just to Novell's products. I was looking at the wording of your announcement and trying to better understand exactly what's going on here. Is there going to be some code that opens and closes and saves OO-XML in OpenOffice.org? Is Novell going to develop that code and then contribute all of it [to the OpenOffice.org open source project] so that any OpenOffice.org user can use it the same way, whether it's Novell's version of OpenOffice.org or another one?
Steinman: First off, regarding the Bruce Perens note, it's worth noting that we signed more than just a patent agreement with Microsoft. We signed a business and technical collaboration agreement with Microsoft, and the sum purpose of all of those agreements was to improve interoperability for the customer from the desktop to the data center. Today we announced new interoperability between OO-XML and OpenOffice.org. What Novell is doing, is we are working with Microsoft to write a 100% -- let me stress that: a 100% -- open source piece of code. We are going to write that code and we are going to roll it into the Novell version of OpenOffice.org that ships as part of Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop and we are going to contribute 100% of that code back to the open source community for inclusion in the OpenOffice.org mainline project (if the community decides that they want to include it). But, let me be perfectly clear, this is pure GPL code, like everything else we do with the Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop. We're picking what we think is the best of open source that's most relevant to our customers, and distributing it. If the community wants to adopt this OO-XML translator, we would welcome it and applaud it.
ZDNet: Well, it seems rather odd: Microsoft and Novell enter into an arrangement that basically paves the way for you to include this interoperability into OpenOffice.org without a threat of Microsoft suing Novell. And if you think about it, if OpenOffice.org can bring this into its official code base, that will make OpenOffice.org a legitimate competitor, maybe even more so than it used to be, to Microsoft Office. Why would Microsoft want this?
Steinman: Because Microsoft is doing what's in the best interest of its customers. They heard loud and clear from their customers that they were tired of software not working together. And Microsoft to their credit has been very realistic and pragmatic. And they realize that, whether they like it or not, Linux is here to stay. And they better figure out a way to work with Linux.
ZDNet: Is there going to be some sort of reciprocal support for the OpenDocument Format in Microsoft Office that you're going to help them install? Because right now Microsoft is at best supportive of ODF. I've written about that before. Earlier this year they came out with an announcement that appeared to many to be support for ODF. But technically speaking, they were just applying some resources to make certain ODF translators available. But Microsoft isn't supporting them the way, if you called Microsoft and asked for technical support for Office, you'll get it. So, do you know of any plans to incorporate ODF support into Microsoft Office? Is Novell going to help Microsoft with those plans?
Steinman: You're going to have to ask Microsoft for any information about their product road map. I'm not a Microsoft employee. So I can't comment on what direction their products are going to take. If Microsoft decided that they did want to include support for ODF inside Microsoft Office, we would of course help them with that coding, because that's again in our best interest.
ZDNet: Amongst your customers, is ODF getting any traction? Because it was just recently ratified by the International Organisation of Standardization as an official standard and it's sort of ahead of Microsoft's OO-XML in the quote-unquote "standards race."
Steinman: We've got a lot of excitement from customers when it comes to ODF. We are seeing Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop getting deployed in divisions and departments of organizations. We've got pilots up to 500 seats running Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop, and with that they are using OpenOffice.org for their office productivity suite. And, what's the default format there? ODF.
ZDNet: If that's the case, isn't it only a matter of time before Microsoft would have to support ODF in its products and perhaps even drop the price of Microsoft office to be at least somewhat more in line with OpenOffice.org or Suse Linux Desktop Linux which includes OpenOffice.rog (as well as maybe Corel's Wordperfect Office)? Didn't Corel just come out and say they would support both formats?
Steinman: I'm not familiar [with the Corel announcement]. It doesn't ring a bell with me.
That's where the interview ended. Between Corel announcing support for ODF (apparently, not yet the presentation and spreadsheet part of ODF, according to Andy Updegrove) and Novell introducing OO-XML/ODF bi-directionality into OpenOffice.org, the pressure is clearly on Microsoft to offer both the same degree of bi-directionality in Office as well as a lower cost version of Office. I just don't see how the current cost of Microsoft Office is sustainable given the new parity point that seems to be emerging in the productivity area, especially given the whole crop of free Web-based offerings that are flooding the market.