Corel: ODF is One Choice Among Many

In an upcoming version of WordPerfect due in 2007, Corel announced this week, users will have the options of reading and writing in both Microsoft Office Open XML format (introduced in Office 2007) and OpenDocument Format (ODF). Will WordPerfect become the ODF word processor of record? Corel's answer was surprising.

Last year, Corel -- the manufacturer of WordPerfect Office X3 -- withheld its suite's support for the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for reasons which many at first failed to understand. Corel was, after all, one of the companies that catalyzed the very creation of the format, with its open and vocal support of the OASIS standards group that produced it. Some speculated that Corel's sudden reticence was merely a tip of the hat to Microsoft, which had earlier made a financial investment in the company.

As Corel's general manager for office productivity Richard Carriere told BetaNews at the time, his company had made the assessment that ODF was not yet a mature format, despite the fact that it's the principal format of WordPerfect's leading open source competitor, OpenOffice.

Earlier this week, Corel announced that the probation period for ODF was over. Beginning in the middle of next year -- probably with the next significant update to the WordPerfect suite -- Corel products will include support not only for ODF, but the other new XML-based word processing format of note, Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML).

"While we still maintain the ODF format is not complete in terms of definitions for spreadsheets and presentations, or for some formatting for formulas...it is certainly much more advanced in the word processing space," Carriere told BetaNews on Friday. "And then we have customers in the government space in particular who have interest not in adopting ODF aggressively, but they're at the point where they want to test their options."

In a now-characteristically ironic way, it's Microsoft that has prompted these public sector customers to assess these options, Carriere explained. Its move to adopt the .DOCX word processing extension of OOXML as Office 2007's principal format, with traditional .DOC as a standby, has managed to place the subject of format transition on business' discussion dockets in a way no other event, either innovative or catastrophic, would have managed to do. These organizations now are exploring their options. Now, ODF becomes one of them.

"What some of our customers really like in our approach," he told us, "[is] that we're not married to one format or another. We're not biased, and therefore we can help them test and navigate toward those that will make sense. So whether or not everything [in ODF] is ready for prime time, like in the spreadsheet examples, as long as we have customers who really are interested in testing, we want to be there and test with them."

We asked Carriere, suppose a major customer such as a government organization chose to adopt ODF as its default format of choice for WordPerfect. Given the deficiencies in ODF that he continued to point out, wouldn't customers experience reduced functionality - for instance, certain formatting commands that might become unavailable?

Carriere responded by saying that, despite what we read in the news about one or two states or provinces adopting ODF "whole-hog," that's not representative of the customer base at large. "Even the most aggressive government organizations in the news - like the state of Massachusetts, for example - now that reality is coming, they all want to take a bit more time assessing their options," he remarked.

"So when we see [stories about] government organizations deciding they will implement ODF, that's not what we see primarily. What we see is, government organizations who will be interested in piloting ODF, and piloting Microsoft Open XML, probably piloting other formats - let's say, PDF/A for archiving. And to do these pilots, they will want partners who can help them across the board. This is where we see interest; but [with regard to] the sole adoption of one format versus another, the feeling we get from our customers is that they're not ready to make that choice yet."

The way WordPerfect will continue to work, he explained, is by processing text and formatting elements in its native format, and then saving in the format of the user's choice. Part of its unique process - perhaps, to this date, WordPerfect's longest running distinguishing feature - is that it can present the user with a raw view of the document, with formatting codes embedded and marked. It's like markup code in HTML, but it's a feature that predates the advent of the Web by several years.

Won't the addition of more new "Save As" formats make it more difficult for WordPerfect's developers to continue to present users with an accurate picture of formatting, especially when revealing raw codes - which remain in "WP" native form?

"I would not say it's not a challenge," Carriere responded, with an intentional double-negative. "It's always been a challenge. If anything, with ODF being an open standard, to which we contributed when it was defined, and Microsoft Open Office XML also being openly documented, at least we don't have to reverse-engineer the formats any more. So if anything, it's not getting easy [or un-] challenging, but it is easier than it used to be."

"The challenge around migrating to XML-based formats is much, much bigger than people would like to believe," Carriere continued. He understands the outcry from some users who have made it literally a political cause to reclaim ownership over the contents of past and present documents, and secure their rights to content they generate in the future. That XML opens up the prospects of open engineering of multiple types of repurposing of content, some ideas for which haven't been created yet, is still fascinating and appealing.

"But the challenges behind it are gigantic," Carriere added. "So meanwhile, whether it is our own formats or other vendors' formats and macros, there will still be demand to view and edit legacy content, there will still be demand to not turn on and off a switch about how your work flows overnight. [So] during a transition period, I'm very comfortable offering a solution that touches on not every alternative, but as many alternatives as possible."

Next: Will WordPerfect adopt a Microsoft-like 'Ribbon?'

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