Responding to Mr. Allison on ODF

Jeremy Allison, in a recent article for ZDNet, complains that Microsoft prevents little girls from turning in their homework. Okay, that's not precisely true.

Jeremy Allison, in a recent article for ZDNet, complains that Microsoft prevents little girls from turning in their homework.

Okay, that's not precisely true. After dropping a few anti-Vista dings, he explained the problems he had trying to open Office XML files in OpenOffice, and used that as reason to call for all the world to standardize on ODF.

Had both word processors supported Open Document Format as an option then it wouldn't have mattered if she had been using Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or any other common word processor.

Fair enough. If all the world DID use ODF, compatibility problems would disappear. You'd have to go non-standard to write spreadsheet formulas (not likely to be a part of a little girl's homework project), but it would create a degree of standardization with parallels in TCP/IP and HTTP, other protocols for which universally applied standards exist.

On the other hand, the same would apply if everyone supported OOXML.

The ODF standard was ratified by the ISO in May, 2006. Granted, various forms of the standard existed before that, but raging against a world that doesn't adhere to a standard that was only finalized a year ago is like complaining about all those cars that don't run on hydrogen. ODF is relatively late to the document format party, a party that has mostly been thrown for the past 15 years by a certain company based in Redmond, Washington.

Instead of asking why ODF isn't supported by Microsoft Office, why doesn't Mr. Allison ask why OpenOffice doesn't support the new Office XML format. It's not like it's a secret. It's a format that has been ratified by ECMA, and is running the ISO gauntlet as we speak. Further, it's a format that Microsoft has worked to ensure accurately represents not just its own formats, but those of many of its competitors, a result of Microsoft's long battle for Office Suite supremacy. People complain about the format's 6000 pages, but then again, putting onto paper 20 years of document format history takes a lot of pages.

Granted, the standard isn't "official" yet (in the ISO sense), but Novell managed somehow to make its converter that Allison used to free a friend's daughter's homework from its docx "cage." I don't think that Novell engineers are imbued with special competence that doesn't exist in the open source community.

The fact of the matter is that the document format war is political to the point that people aren't able to consider rationally the merits of either format. OOXML has merit, if nothing else than as the inheritor of a format legacy that stretches back decades whose richness it will take ODF a long time to match. ODF is a new format that strikes off in a new direction while ditching compatibility with the past. Both approaches have merits in a market where official standards have, for most of the history of the office productivity tools market, been lacking.

Blaming Microsoft for the fact that OpenOffice can't read (or even write) OOXML is blame shifting of the most extreme sort. No, Microsoft didn't include the ability to save to older formats from its Office 2007 TRIAL version. Microsoft has a business oriented around OOXML, and asking them to create free writers (or in this case, the ability to save to a legacy format in a TRIAL version of a product Microsoft charges good money for) is like asking Google (Mr. Allison's employer, the competitive parallel to my employer, Microsoft) to give me free ad placement in their search engine. They have, however, made it possible for others to read AND write OOXML documents, an ability proven by Novell's conversion tool.

The job now lies with others to make that possible.

[NOTE: from ZDNet Talkback participant MGP2, another option]

Tis better to light a candle than to curse the dark. Instead of cursing or Microsoft, Mr. Allison could have downloaded an Office 2003/2007 add-in, as I did, which adds to your file menu, 2 options. It adds the options to both Word and Excel. One says "save as odf", and one says "open odf".