Course Change for OpenDocument Developers Seen as Emerging Rift

A presentation made two weeks ago by two members of OASIS' OpenDocument technical committee, and founding members of the OpenDocument Foundation, made it clear that the foundation would be turning its attention away from developing the ODF format and translators for it. Instead, in a course change instigated as far back as last May, the Foundation is steering back toward a project launched in 1995 by the World Wide Web Consortium, in hopes of recapturing the momentum toward document interoperability for all existing word processor users.

"This conversion to XML must be non-disruptive," reads a memo circulated early this month among attendees of the Government Open Source Conference, which included Linux World reporter Brian Proffitt. The memo's author is Gary Edwards, co-founder of the OpenDocument Foundation and one of its earliest contributors, who now believes it has been steered away from its original goals by vendors in the interest of competing with Microsoft.

The eventual vehicle for converting document formats into an interoperable standard, Edwards continued, "must integrate into existing processes and infrastructure as a value-added service and not as a new - disconnected but collaborative - process. The conversion process must fit into existing MSOffice-bound workgroup-workflow business processes. And that means a high fidelity 'round trip' capable lossless conversion process."

In other words, if open source advocates are truly interested in interoperability, Edwards believes, they must take into account that companies' and institutions' business processes should be presumed not to change in the process. Because while Microsoft's grand aim appears to be to develop a broader framework of operation for the entire Internet around Microsoft's own format stacks, protocols, and converters, the ODF alternative would appear to be what he calls "rip and replace" - compelling institutions to make fundamental changes in the way they work, just in the name of keeping formats copacetic with one another.

As Edwards continued, "The pragmatic approach the world must take is that of finding the means of being interoperable with the MS desktop. A difficult proposition if ever there was one."

The alternative to which ODF is redirecting its attention is the W3C's Compound Documents Framework project, which has been through so many transformations during its long history that the "F" in "CDF" is also known to stand for "Formats." Since its inception, CDF's objective was to create an easy way to bind multiple types of data, including XHTML documents but also including spreadsheets, forms, and other regulated data, into a common enclosure.

Earlier this year, the ODF Foundation's "da Vinci" project made a course change: Originally conceived as an open source project for converting Microsoft's Office Open XML documents into the ODf format, its leaders changed their target to the CDF framework. Why make the change? It turns out that one of the key arguments ODf format advocates had been making against OOXML - that it was designed around Microsoft Office first and foremost - turned around and bit them.

"Many people have asked us why we switched from ODf to CDF, the W3C's Compound Document Format?" reads the da Vinci project's homepage. (Note the reference to "ODf" with a lower-case "f" to refer to "format" rather than "Foundation;" for clarity, we'll do the same for this article.) "The answer is that we cannot pipe the converted MS binaries into ODf without the use of some additional eXtensions. The richness of MSOffice features and business process development cannot fit into ODf without suffering loss of fidelity (or loss of presentation information). We can however pipe from our internal conversion process into a CDF target format."

From there, the CDF compound entity could conceivably be translated a second time, to ODf or to the Chinese national UOF standard, or to whatever the user chooses. If the interface is handled properly, all this translation can take place transparently, so the user's business functions need not be seriously or even noticeably impacted.

"So what should people understand about this change?" asks Gary Edwards in a blog posting last week. "ODF continues to do exactly what it was intended to do. MS-OOXML continues to do exactly what it was intended to do. And it looks to us as if CDF can bridge the gap between while opening the world wide webs beyond."

It would seem like a peaceful and orderly transition, if only Edwards and partner Buck "Marbux" Martin weren't kicking ODf format on the way out.

In an op-ed piece printed by Linux World Australia last July, Edwards and Martin responded to the state of Massachusetts' decision to accept OOXML on equal standing with ODf with the words, "as clear a signal that ODF had failed in Massachusetts as needed by anyone in the know."

"Is it game over for OpenDocument? Probably," was their lead.

Next: The remaining case for the ODf format

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