RealTime IT News

Open Docs Faithful Tell Microsoft to Cut The FUD

Analysis: Microsoft's pledge to provide open-source plug-ins that form a bridge between the Open Document Format (ODF) and its own Open XML format caused a stir among standards experts from companies that back ODF.

Executives with Sun Microsystems  and IBM , two of the most vocal opponents of Microsoft's heretofore staunch refusal to back ODF, indicated Microsoft's reluctant olive branch was bittersweet.

Here's the rundown.

Citing demand from governments worldwide, the software giant yesterday unveiled the Open XML Translator project, which allows Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs to read documents created in ODF.

The first fruit of this project is a plug-in added to Word 2007 that is being offered on SourceForge.

ODF, which got ratified as an ISO standard earlier this year, allows text, spreadsheet and presentation files to work with one another even if they were created with different vendors' applications.

This is a good thing.

People are making a big deal about ODF because they believe its support for XML will eventually allow programmers to create mash-ups of Internet-based business software and documents that will work better with traditional desktop applications.

For example, ODF might one day enable charts and graphs in files on one's desktop to update themselves when current information appears on a Web site. Or it might allow smarter and faster searches for information.

At the very least, ODF could allow government organizations all over the world to bring their information over to pure ODF software without incurring extra costs that are traditionally part of the conversions associated with Microsoft's file formats.

Microsoft  is not a fan of ODF, dubbing it too limited and incomplete compared to Open XML. But the company acknowledged in an e-mail to internetnews.com that it had to extend some sort of ODF support for customers.

"While the Open XML formats provide unique and unparalleled value, we know that there are certain government organizations that have constituents, particularly in the OSS [open source software] community, who are concerned about assuring interoperability with Office," the spokesperson said.

"We felt there would be no better way to solve this than via an OSS translation project."

While they were happy that Microsoft eased up by providing some ODF support, Sun's Chief Open Source Officer Simon Phipps and IBM's vice president of open standards and open source Bob Sutor want Microsoft to quit spreading the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about ODF.

Phipps said in a blog post Thursday that the Microsoft ODF has been created in such as way as to "make ODF as hard to work with as possible because imported files are read-only, and you can't set ODF as the default file format."

Phipps, phoning from Brussels Thursday while his Sun colleagues in the U.S. have the week off, said Microsoft has essentially forced itself to have to offer some sort of ODF concession.

When pressed, Phipps said that Microsoft has spent so long telling the world that ODF isn't enough and that Open XML is superior, that it essentially scared some of the customers that were unsure what direction they wanted to go into demanding ODF support from Microsoft.

"If we want to see Microsoft behaving in a way that respects customers and standards, they will need to be dragged kicking and screaming and FUDing all the way to that conclusion," he wrote in his blog.

FUD was also top of mind for IBM's Sutor, who said that while Microsoft's move seemed positive overall, it's thinly veiled jabs at ODF in public press releases and comments are helping no one.

To Microsoft's point that OASIS is now working on providing spreadsheet formulas, macro support and accessibility support for ODF, Sutor said: "All right, all right, ODF is under active development by a worldwide community of experts not under the control of a single vendor who are making it state of the art in such areas as accessibility! We admit it!"

The executive added that many applications on all sorts of platforms and devices both now and in the future will be able to take advantage of ODF's clean design to improve customer value.

Then, in a move that parallels Microsoft's closely stacked pleas of support for and criticisms of ODF, Sutor praised and chastised Microsoft.

"I'm really very pleased that you are responding to global customer demand for ODF and are publicly admitting that it will play an important role. It's a good start on your path to first class, native, and default support for ODF."

"Right now you are just duplicating work done by others, but, as I said, if this is really an honest first step to full, enthusiastic support for ODF, then I applaud your action. Do cut the insults about ODF in the process, it sort of dilutes your message."

Sutor also invited Microsoft to embrace ODF more fully by joining OASIS to help ODF get its legs.

"Microsoft, to be blunt, joined this group to help advance the state of the art instead of just defending your own turf and making these left handed compliments," Sutor said.

Whether Microsoft accepts the invitation or does more to support ODF on its own, with native support for ODF in Office 2007, is anyone's guess.

But clearly the company's moves regarding the developing standard are being closely watched and scrutinized.