ODF and the Art of Interoperability

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It's hard to believe that there was such sound and fury when OOXML was being pushed through the ISO process. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, since it looked like Microsoft had succeeded in obtaining a nominal parity with ODF, which had been approved earlier.

My, what a difference a year makes.

One of the central reasons for standardising the file formats is to allow alternative implementations and interoperability between them. This gives users the ability to avoid vendor lock-in, and creates a competitive marketplace that drives down prices (assuming they are not already zero, as in the case of open source).

While OOXML-compliant software seems conspicuous by its absence, ODF goes from strength to strength: there is literally no contest between the rival standards in this respect.

That's not to say that there aren't still teething problems with ODF, with incompatibilities of varying seriousness showing up between alternative implementations. For example, when you move your document from one program to another, internal details may change, upsetting the overall layout. These problems are acknowledged, and are being worked on in the spirit of co-operation and mutual benefit.

But that may be cold comfort to companies that actually want to use ODF, and are worried about problems down the line. Indeed, such concerns may well be serious brake on ODF uptake.

Here's a valuable new free service that should help. It aims to spot problems before you send out documents that might be viewed on different platforms. It's called Officeshots.org.

A document may look nice on your screen while you are working on it in its native application, but that is just the outside. If the exchange formats are not implemented correctly, it might look like a sloppy mess to the person receiving the business proposal, invoice or report you worked so hard on. Officeshots.org was inspired by an open source project from the web standards world called browsershots.org.

Officeshots.org will help you make a better choice by letting you compare the output and other behaviour of a wide variety of applications

Does your corporate style - the technical basis for many documents - actually look consistent across the board of applications: from OpenOffice.org 3.0, Adobe Buzzword and Symphony 1.2 to Microsoft Office 2000 with the ODF add-in from Microsoft - or the one from Sun Microsystems? And how does it look on Mac OS X in iWork? When you are in an acquisition phase, officeshots.org will help you do a reality check if that fancy new open source suite or that productivity package you can get a bargain deal at - actually does what it says. On the spot.

After submitting a document to officeshots.org, the site will deliver the print, screen and code output as produced by a variety of different productivity applications - in different versions and across operating system platforms. Anyone can upload ODF-documents, at no cost. This is because officeshots.org actually divides the work among rendering servers hosted by vendors and the community. That could be you (if you're interested, contact us or look here to see the technical documentation).

This is a really useful way to see how well interoperability works in practice, rather than just theoretically. As with open source software in general, it means that you can try things out before committing yourself to a given course of action. It will also help those writing the code to find and squash remaining bugs, and strengthen the overall ODF ecosystem.

At the moment, the service is in closed beta, but is open to people who sign up to the OpenDoc Society.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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