Wow. Barely a week has passed since Corel announced that Wordperfect Office Suite would be supporting both the OpenDocument Format and Microsoft's OpenXML, and now, it looks like OpenOffice.org will be the second office suite to incorporate support for both formats thanks to the efforts of Novell (although the press release around the news was a bit cryptic). Back to the Corel news, last week, Andy Updegrove (who is also general counsel to OASIS -- the consortium that chaperones the OpenDocument Format standard) wrote:
In an excellent example of "better late than never," Corel Corporation announced this morning that it's next release of its flagship Corel WordPerfect Office suite will provide open, view and edit support for ODF – and for Office OpenXML (OOXML), the format submitted to Ecma for adoption, as well. The announcement states that the new functionality will be just a "first step towards a comprehensive set of functionality for both formats," but does not specify what actions might follow, or when....
....The new release will reach the market in "mid 2007." Like Microsoft before it, when it offered OOXML to Ecma, Corel states that its decision is focused in particular at its government customers, which in the case of Corel represents a much larger percentage of its customer base than is the case with Microsoft....
....Unlike Corel's earlier decision not to announce support for ODF, its new strategy would seem to make excellent sense, providing its existing government customers with an excellent rationale for remaining in the Corel camp, and giving other potential public customers a trusted, fully featured product to consider in contrast to Microsoft Office.
Currently, the only ODF compliant product that includes large-vendor service is Sun's more recently developed StarOffice office suite. And with the refusal of Microsoft to provide native support for saving to ODF, Microsoft customers will need to use plugins that have yet to reach the marketplace, and which may not provide completely seamless conversion.
I guess that (the only ODF-compliant product that includes large-vendor service) is changing now that Novell seems to be throwing some weight behind OpenOffice.org (although I thought IBM's Workplace Client was ODF-compliant. Yo Bob [Sutor, IBM]. What gives?). According to a Novell press release issued earlier today:
Novell today announced that the Novell edition of the OpenOffice.org office productivity suite will now support the Office Open XML format, increasing interoperability between OpenOffice.org and the next generation of Microsoft Office. Novell is cooperating with Microsoft and others on a project to create bi-directional open source translators for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office, with the word processing translator to be available first, by the end of January 2007. The translators will be made available as plug-ins to Novell’s OpenOffice.org product. Novell will release the code to integrate the Open XML format into its product as open source and submit it for inclusion in the OpenOffice.org project. As a result, end users will be able to more easily share files between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org, as documents will better maintain consistent formats, formulas and style templates across the two office productivity suites.
Already though, my "proceed with caution light" is blinking a bit. The bit about "the Novell edition of the OpenOffice.org" supporting Microsoft's Office Open XML format (OOXML) leaves one wondering what the gory details are behind the company's stated intent to "release the code to integrate the Open XML format into its product as open source and submit it for inclusion in the OpenOffice.org project." I just worry that betweent the words "plug-in" and "integrate" that there's some piece of this announcement that involves a Novell only version of OpenOffice.org that support OOXML whereas other versions may not have the same level of support.
Suspicions around such walled-gardenesque mixtures of patent-encumbered code with open source were raised by Bruce Peren's recent attempt to organize a protest of the recent patent deal between Microsoft and Novell. In his open letter to Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian, which currently bears 2680 signatures (some of which including written testimony), Perens wrote:
The Open Source community would find little to criticize in your agreement with Microsoft, had it remained a strictly financial and technical agreement. As the agreement stands today, it betrays the authors of the software you re-market and their users worldwide for Novell's sole commercial benefit.
The covenant of the GPL is that in the face of a software patent aggressor we must all hang together, lest we each hang separately. Novell accepted that covenant when you chose to include the Linux kernel, the GNU C library, and hundreds of additional works created at no charge to Novell by individuals in the Free Software community and licensed under the GPL.
It is abundantly clear that Novell and Microsoft took the time to engineer a circuitous legal path of issuing covenants to each other's customers, rather than licenses to each other, in order to circumvent Novell's earlier agreement with the community of GPL software developers....
.....The Novell-Microsoft agreement has even had the power to make the Linux kernel developers and the large companies that support them take a fresh look at GPL 3. In the face of these changes, Novell will probably be stuck with old versions of the software, under old licenses, with Novell sustaining the entire cost and burden of maintaining that software. Novell will have to maintain its customers on old versions while the community takes GPL 3 versions of the same software into the future.
In short, now that Novell has chosen not to hang together with the Free Software community, we've chosen not to do so with you.
There is really only one path out of this corner for Novell. Go on with your technical collaboration, and keep the money. But Novell must now direct Microsoft to refrain from granting covenants to Novell's users unless they will apply to everyone equally. Hang together with the Free Software community by changing your software patent stance from one of monopoly rights for Novell to one of support for legislation that will make it safe for all of us to create, distribute, and use software.
Perens, who is quite a colorful if not controversial character (hear my podcast interview of him), is one of the more outspoken advocates of open source and helped to author the Open Source Initiative's official Open Source Definition (a definition that could easily get driven into irrelevance if certain trends are allowed to continue). To find out if there's any fine print to this announcement that we should be paying attention too, I'll be interviewing Novell's director of marketing Justin Steinman later on today. If you have questions, feel free to send them my way at david DOT berlind AT cnet.com.
Going back to the issue at hand -- office suite support for both ODF and OOXML -- now the only question is when Microsoft will support ODF in earnest in Microsoft Office, if it ever will. After all, with multiple office suites in the market offering support for ODF as well as Microsoft's OOXML, it would stand to reason that Microsoft's hand will be forced to drop the price of Office, support ODF, or both.
Earlier this year, an announcement by Microsoft was perceived by many to be considered as support for ODF but, as I wrote, it was more about being supportive of ODF rather than offering what customers typically construe as "support" (as in, I call Microsoft and they help me figure out my problem).
Interestingly, the Novell press release includes comment from Microsoft. The release quotes Chris Capossela, corporate vice president, Microsoft Business Division Product Management Group as saying:
This is further evidence to our mutual customers that Novell and Microsoft have the same commitment to document interoperability and customer choice for document technology. As a leader in the open source community, Novell can help us make sure the Open XML translation technology works well across different applications and platforms. Novell has already provided contributions to the Ecma Open XML standard, and this commitment to support the Open XML format via their product makes it work for customers.
Ecma standard? Almost. There's a bit of interesting news on that front as well. The press release goes onto say:
It is presented for Ecma General Assembly approval on December 7, 2006, with the intention to offer the specification for formal ISO/JTC1 standardization.
Meanwhile, if anybody's keeping score, ODF is winning in the overall standards race. Last week, on Dec 1, the International Organisation of Standardization (ISO, don't ask) ratified ODF as one of its official standards: ISO/IEC 26300:2006.