Is the door open for OpenDocument format?

There is increasing interest among governments in Open Document format, but the open standard has yet to make much headway in the business world.


This week marks the first anniversary of the ODF Alliance, an international group of organisations dedicated to promoting Open Document format for XML (ODF) as an international standard for document formats.

The group has encouraged public agencies across the world to enact policies supporting open IT standards over the past year. But industry watchers say ODF supporters have more work to do to increase the adoption of alternatives to Microsoft's Office suite.

The alliance - which includes IBM and Sun – had 36 member organisations at its launch but has now grown to more than 370 members from 51 countries. The group has helped ODF gain momentum in government agencies across the world and even in the US, which has been traditionally resistant to replacing Microsoft software with open alternatives.

The latest win for the technology came this week when legislators in the US state of Oregon joined government officials in Texas, California and Minnesota in proposing bills that would make it mandatory for the state's government agencies to base their technologies on open standards such as ODF.

Over the past year, the national governments of Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway have also recommended ODF or open standards for government documents such as legislation and policy statements, and several regional governments have also said they are eyeing the standard for use as the default file format for documents, says ODF Alliance executive director Marino Marcich.

The alliance has been a strong promoter of ODF and a catalyst for much of this support, but another event has paved the way for broader adoption of ODF: its approval last May as an international standard by the International Organisation for Standardisation. Microsoft's rival Open XML format – the default in Office 2007 – is currently awaiting standardisation from the same group.

But while governments seem more willing to embrace ODF as a standard, it is still not winning the hearts of the business sector, where Microsoft Office is deeply entrenched, says Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk.

It is these customers that must be won over for ODF-based alternatives to Office, such as Sun's StarOffice and IBM's Workplace suites, to succeed. Governments’ uptake and interest in ODF has been “a steady drumbeat”, he says. "Enterprises, on the other hand, have proved harder to convince."

The ODF Alliance's Marcich says his group's work is focused on government adoption and will remain there for the immediate future. But he acknowledges that adoption by the private sector is key to the success of the standard and office suites that support it. "ODF has to get into the corporate workflow, not just in governments," he says.

Marcich adds that in the coming year, the alliance will focus on encouraging governments to move from just setting policies around ODF and other open standards to actual implementations of the technology.

"It's one thing to identify a standard and direct it for use, but [adopting a new format] is not a matter of turning a light switch on and off," he says. "That's another challenge over the long term."

Another challenge for ODF proponents is that support for ODF does not mean support for office suites built on the standard, RedMonk's O'Grady says. This is particularly true now that Microsoft has said it is funding the development of a plug-in to allow Office -- which does not natively support ODF -- to read and write to the standard.

It is up to the individual vendors – including Sun and IBM – that are creating alternatives to Office to make their products compelling enough for a switch, O'Grady says. “Whether or not ODF can enable Office competitors to take the next step and actually threaten the flagship product will depend on the products themselves.”

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