by November 2, 2007 0 comments

Even as the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD battle is heading to its logical conclusion (of
co-existence or the lack of it), another format war has reached its crescendo —
the war of office suite formats. Microsoft recently approached the International
Standards Organization (ISO) for a fast-track decision on the adoption of its
format, which is used by Office 2007, as a certified global format. ISO, which
has already ratified the Open Document Format (ODF) as a standard, announced on
September 5th that Microsoft’s format, the Open Office XML (OOXML) failed to get
a ‘resounding yes’ from its panel consisting of technology companies and all the
UN member nations.

Wait and watch
The final ratification of OOXML as a standard by the ISO will now have to
wait till February next year, when the ISO will hold a ballot resolution meeting
and Microsoft will be asked to address and counter the concerns, apprehensions
and brickbats put forward by various participating countries. In other words,
Microsoft has about six months to beef up the OOXML format to suit international
standards and gather more support.

Microsoft has already started its endeavor to mend the biggest flaw of OOXML—
interoperability. It has undertaken to beef up its partnership with vendors to
tackle interoperability issues in design, technology and standardization. It has
also announced a continuing collaboration with AOL and Yahoo! for instant
messaging, and Novell for virtualization applications, besides the creation of
what it calls the Interoperability Vendor Alliance. But its biggest achievement
in this regard is said to be the successful deployment of what it calls the Open
XML Translator, essentially a combination of tools that allow translation
between ODF based applications and OOXML formats, the source code for which is
available under what is called a BSD license. Having got its roots from Berkeley
Software Distribution, BSD represents a family of free-for-use software licenses

Direct Hit!
Applies To:
Office applications’ users
Comparing the market stakes for the two global office
suite formats
Primary Link: Google
Keywords: ODF, OOXML

Divided supporters
While HP, Intel, EMC, Sony Electronics, Apple and Lexmark International have
come out strongly in support of Microsoft, Oracle and IBM continue to support
ODF. Germany and the US voted in favor of Microsoft, while Britain and France
voiced a clear ‘no’ but were open to supporting Microsoft in future if ‘vital
modifications’ are incorporated in the OOXML structure. India preferred to
follow this argument, though initially it went all out against Microsoft. As
expected, the technical institutions, IITs and IIMs are completely in support of
ODF, and believe that the OOXML is not ‘open’ enough to be certified as a global
standard, as it doesn’t represent a common ground across products. They argue
that ODF has originated through a process of evolution and right since its
inception, it has been completely ‘vendor neutral’.

Growth of ODF
ODF is the brainchild of Sun Microsystem’s OpenOffice, formerly known as
Star Office, started off in 1999 by Star Division, as an attempt to build a
non-proprietary XML-based interoperable office suite. A year later, Sun
Microsystems acquired Star Division and for the next two years, all it did was
to invite source codes through an open-to-all licensing mechanism. An XML
community project was also embarked upon, and the two finally united in December
2002, at an OASIS (Organization for Advancement of Structured Information
Standards) conference, where the arrival of ODF was formally upheld.

Vendor support
But it was only in May 2006, after regular overhauling, public consultations
and two enhanced draft versions of the format were released, that the ODF
achieved ISO certification. The next obvious step was to consolidate this fete
by attracting other software creators into adopting the ODF. One of the first to
oblige was Adobe, which upgraded its PDF format to sync up with ODF. In July
2006, Google joined the ODF bandwagon by allowing compatibility of its online
Office suite, Google Apps (which includes individual applications like Google
Docs and Google Spreadsheets) with ODF. Besides Google and Adobe, the ODF
loyalists’ club includes founder members IBM, Oracle, Red Hat and Novell.

The simple idea of designing a skeleton for software developers to build
their applications on, specifically office and word processing applications, and
requiring them to only tweak the backend system to suit their needs did the
trick for ODF. To simplify things further, the ODF architecture has sub-divided
the systems into convenient and flexible components — Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG),
Mathematical Formulas (MathML), Embedded links (XLink), Synchronized Multimedia
Integration Language (SMIL) and Forms definitions (XForms), each of which is
built on Open Source platform. While SVG is an XML specification that allows
scripting for static and animated graphics, MathML integrates mathematical
formulae into WWW documents, and XLink allows the inclusion of hyperlinks within
XML documents. Xforms, originally designed for XHTML, incorporates the Web Forms
functions into the application while SMIL is the language for describing
multimedia presentations within an XML based framework.

Beefing up OOXML
OOXML on the other hand is a beefed up version of Microsoft’s XML based
format that was introduced as part of Office 2003 suite. Back then, data was not
compressed and was stored in a single XML file, with binary data, like images,
being represented as BASE64 strings. This is a positional notation process that
uses the alphabets A-Z and numerals 0-9 for first 64 digits of the code, while
the last two digits are various combinations of numbers and digits with specific

But during the development of Office 12 (more popularly known as Office
2007), Microsoft resorted to following an ODF model by storing data in a number
of small packet files, each of which are embedded within a .zip file. Having got
this format certified by the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA),
Microsoft approached ISO for certification.

Head to head
At the very basic level of document readability, both ODF and OOXML work in
the same way, and no visible difference can be observed in terms of ‘openness’.
But the shortcoming clearly lies in two departments — backward compatibility and
generalization across platforms. In that respect, ODF and OOXML were created for
two distinctly different purposes. While Microsoft intended the OOXML to be in
sync with the feature set of Office 2007, and make it backward compatible with
earlier editions of the suite, ODF began as a general document markup format,
created for and by Linux enthusiasts. As Open Source grew out of Linux boom, so
did ODF. Hence, it can be compared to what HTML did to Web pages. As of now, ODF
has come to be known as a format that is conducive to creating new office suite
applications that wish to be called ‘Open Source suites;’ which in turn
translates as a format that encourages competition and development of new
products, each similar to the other. Contrary to this, OOXML ensures that nobody
can clone the Microsoft model of Office, while paying more emphasis on detail
and smooth operation.

User interest
By the time the ISO panel meets in February, Microsoft should make the OOXML
‘open’ enough for use by any third party developer, who in all probability, will
belong to the open source community. The developer should be able to use,
modify, interoperate and sync up existing and newer applications on the OOXML
platform. This will ensure two things — a certain similarity of the OOXML to ODF
in terms of flexibility and interoperability and two, a major chunk of
Microsoft’s proprietary Office backbone thrown open for external developers to
modify and create new applications. From the users’ perspective, this would mean
an automatic sync up between multiple office suite applications, irrespective of
which vendor they have purchased it from. When two or more office suites begin
‘talking’ to each other, it will create room for better usability,
synchronization and the ability to invoke specific applications from other
suites, if needed. For instance, a document or spreadsheet you have created
using one vendor’s application, can be opened and modified in another’s —
because they would have been created around the same universal format. For a
developer, this means a massive broadening of arenas for collaborations,
XML-based programs that blend across different products and applications, and a
common skeleton that can be done up the way your unique application demands. If
all goes well, this fete will be achieved by the end of February, after ISO’s
final meeting to settle the ODF versus OOXML battle.

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