Until very recently, if you or your company wanted to buy a "productivity suite" -- a package of software that includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, Powerpoint-like presentations, and a few other helpful utilities -- there were relatively few choices and none of them played well together. In other words, while you may have been able to open documents that were saved in one suite using another suite, that "interoperability" was never quite perfect. Not only that, the vendors who made these suites have had a limited amount of incentive to fix the problem. When you're a vendor, interoperability is often a bad thing. It gives end users what the deserve. The power to switch.
If you're a vendor and you can addict your customers to your proprietary (vendor-specific) formats, that's a good thing. The more documents your customers create in with your suite of software, the more addicted to that software your customers will become -- eventually relying on it to the exclusion of everything else to create, open, save, or edit their documents.
But then, in 2005, if you were a user of such suites, the productivity suite interoperability landscape took a turn for the better when a group of vendors including IBM and Sun got together to create a common way for saving and retrieving documents known as the OpenDocument Format or ODF. Although ODF has risen in status to an international standard, having recently been ratified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), there is one small wrinkle: Microsoft, the maker of the most popular suite -- Microsoft Office -- has so far shown limited interes in getting its productivity suite to work with ODF. Instead (still more good news for end users), in the name of the same interoperability that ODF was created for, Microsoft has released a different "open" format known as the Office Open XML format or OO-XML and it too is headed to the ISO for ratification (although no one can say for sure whether or not it will get it). Say what you will about Microsoft coming out with an additional standard rather than just supporting ODF, the bottom line is that the world is better off with open formats rather than the closed ones that existed just a year or two ago.
So, while the two formats duke it out in the market place, what's a third-party productivity suite developer to do? Should it support one format? Both? And technically, what is support? The ability to open a document? How about to create, edit or save documents? One company -- Ottawa-based Corel -- now faces those very decisions as it attempts to navigate a successful path between the two competing formats. Recently, Corel announced it would support both in its Wordperfect Office suite, but a lot of questions remained. To what extent? When exactly? Why exactly? At what expense to Corel? To get those answers, I got a hold of Corel's general manager for Office Productivity Richard Carriere for a podcast interview.
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Although we covered a lot of ground, here's a taste of the Q&A:
ZDNet: What is the road map at Corel for supporting these different formats? And I'll ask you to be very specific, so for example, there is of course opening documents that are formated in these formats...then there is the saving, which are two very different things...there is the degree of support, so to the extent that there are different applications that the format covers, for example spreadsheets, word processors, presentation software and so forth, what about that? Like, is it one application, multiple applications? And then, within the applications, how robust is the support? For example, when you are going to be offering support, when and how will the support be offered? Will it be complete support? Will it be partial support in terms of functionality and you know, again, when?
Carriere: OK, I'll try to be as specific as I can to each of these, so a couple of things...even before I desrcibe the road map. Our decisions around this road map are based on user needs. We have resources that we need to focus in areas where we will have the most impact first. And there are things that are important coming really soon, for example, the fact that Microsoft Office Open XML will be the default file format for millions of documents that will start being created by whoever acquires a PC loaded with Office 2007...
ZDNet: Is that the case, just to stop you there for one second, will they be defaulting to that format or will they be defaulting to one of the prior Microsoft formats?
Carriere: That's what Microsoft has announced, that their Open XML format will be the default format starting...well, now for whoever in the enterprise space would already deploy it immediately, which is a small number. But in the consumer/small business space which is a very important market for Corel. People will buy PCs from PC OEMs, they will buy PC's and software from retail stores. And starting January 30th, [those PCs] will come loaded with Office 2007, which means that the files and that format will be running around. So that's clear user demand that when people get these files, we want to stay true to our commitment of compatibility to relevant file formats, that people who receive these files, we want them to be able to open them in Wordperfect Office. This is why this is one of our first elements on the road map. Same thing, opening ODF. There are two reasons why we are doing it at the same time, as we are doing the Microsoft Open XML format; one of which is that our customers primarily in the government space are asking us to help them explore the different formats, and they want to test ODF as part of their formats. These customers are primarily using the word processor module of our suite. So therefore, this is where we are focusing first. So you ask me what are we going to support specifically? In the Microsoft Open XML format, it will be the word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. In ODF in the first place, it will be the word processing, and we'll have to assess as the customer demand evolves, when we are going to support ODF for the other applications...
ZDNet: What about Google?
Carriere: That's a very good question...you've touched something very important and interesting...What Google is creating as far as buzz is even more important in my mind (then talking just file formats). I'm not saying that I think that Google Docs and Spreadsheets are going to shake up and displace PC-based office productivity applications. But I think that it highlights that there is a need for online collaboration. There is a need to extend a work-flow behind the document creation, viewing, editing and printing. And what we've been very strong at doing and what Microsoft Office has been very strong, is [not only] having industrial strength, PC-based applications that require powerful PCs, but [ones that] provide a very stable experience for the heavy lifting, heavy formatted applications. Now there is an entire set of opportunities around taking the content that you created with these applications and now collaborating with this information, reshaping it, exchanging it in ways that have not been possible before. So if anything, I think it will stimulate very much, this category in the software industry and hopefully, I don't know when, six months from now, a year from now, we'll be able to tell you more about what we're doing in that space. But what I can tell you is that you'll hear some very exciting stuff from us in this space.