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Independent study advises IT planners to go OOXML

Market researchers with the Burton Group have issued a 37-page study that finds Microsoft's OOXML document format to be more useful than the rival ODF format.
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Market researchers with the Burton Group have issued a 37-page study--not commissioned by Microsoft or any other tech vendor--that finds Microsoft's OOXML document format to be more useful than the rival ODF format backed by Microsoft's competitors.

The new study, freely downloadable (in exchange for registration) from Burton's Web site is entitled "What's Up, .DOC? ODF, OOXML, and the Revolutionary Implications of XML in Productivity Applications."

Office Open XML (OOXML) is Microsoft's XML file format that it made the default in its Office 2007 suite. OpenDocument Format (ODF) is the file format championed by Sun Microsystems, IBM, Google and other Microsoft competitors.

Microsoft is seeking ISO standards approval for OOXML, largely to appease customers who prefer/require standards-compliant products, as well as to head off ODF momentum, especially in developing nations.

In September, Microsoft lost its bid to fast-track OOXML through ISO. In February 2008, ISO will hold a ballot-resolution meeting on Microsoft's OOXML ISO standardization bid.

After comparing the respective merits of OOXML and ODF, Burton made its recommendations for IT managers: "Any organization directly or indirectly (e.g., exchanging files with business partners) using Microsoft Office applications should plan to exploit OOXML. In addition to being the default file format in Office 2007, OOXML offers significant compression and security advantages relative to earlier, binary Microsoft Office file formats."

He added: "Although moving to OOXML file formats involves some administrative challenges, the opportunities for improved content management and productivity outweigh the short-term inconvenience of migrating from binary file formats."

Burton Group analysts Guy Creese and Peter O'Kelly, authors of the new study, explained why they believe OOXML "will be more pervasive than ODF." They said Microsoft's format is a "better form-follows-function fit for most productivity application usage patterns."

They found OOXML to be considerably more complex than ODF, and predicted that OOXML's scope will likely expand to include application domains such as databases. (The analysts predict Microsoft will not push that expansion in scope until after the Febraruy 2008 ISO OOXML standards vote, however.)

Burton does not see ODF disappearing, but does expect the format to become increasingly hemmed-in.

From the report: "ODF represents laudable design and standards work. It's a clean and useful design, but it's appropriate mostly for relatively unusual scenarios in which full Microsoft Office file format fidelity isn't a requirement. Overall, ODF addresses only a subset of what most organizations do with productivity applications today."

The report continues: "ODF is insufficient for complex real-world enterprise requirements, and it is indirectly controlled by Sun Microsystems, despite also being an ISO standard. It's possible that IBM, Novell, and other vendors may be able to put ODF on a more customer-oriented trajectory in the future and more completely integrate it with the W3C content model, but for now ODF should be seen as more of an anti-Microsoft political statement than an objective technology selection."

Burton also was skeptical about ODF-based products' appeal even in budget-constrained and shops where Microsoft Office is not the established norm.

"The most significant value of ODF-based alternatives to Microsoft Office, for many organizations, may be in establishing a viable alternative that provides opportunities to negotiate more favorable pricing/licensing agreements with Microsoft.

"This doesn't mean OpenOffice.org-derived productivity suites are actually more cost-effective than Office, since most enterprises would opt to purchase support and maintenance contracts for the Office alternatives (e.g., IBM Lotus Symphony, the Novell Edition of OpenOffice.org, or Sun's StarOffice) and since Microsoft has been able to exploit very large economies of scale to keep Office relatively inexpensive."

In the long run, the OOXML vs. ODF battle may be superseded by new standards emerging from the W3C, such as XForms, according to Burton.

"The W3C model, building on XML, CSS, and other W3C standards, is likely to ultimately be more influential and pervasive than ODF and OOXML. It's also something of a circular reference, of course, since both ODF and OOXML are defined in terms of several W3C standards."

The Burton authors released this study "to help catalyze and advance the debate" between OOXML and ODF before the February ISO standards vote, Creese blogged.

This article first appeared as a blog post on ZDNet.com.

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