Why your organization should be using open document standards

Microsoft has the enterprise market cornered with its Office productivity suite. Skill with Outlook, Excel and Word is pretty much required in the corporate world. As a result, most companies have significant data tied up in the proprietary binary file formats doc and xls.

This is not to mention all the web-based software designed for Internet Explorer (and usually an obsolete version of IE like 6) which is a similar issue to the vendor lock-in problem. Corporations still overwhelmingly use IE6 as their default browser, but the missed opportunities related to browsers in industry is a topic for another day.

In Office 2007 Microsoft has made its XML-based formats (docx, xlsx) the default, which was certified as an open standard by Ecma International in 2006, and then by ISO in late 2008. But did we really need a second open document standard? We already had OpenDocument, which was an ISO standard as far back as 2006.

OpenDocument is now supported in Office Word 2007 SP2, and there are only a few formatting issues noted by me in informal testing. There are issues around the formula handling in Excel, as Microsoft built support on the 1.1 version of the standard instead of the newer 1.2 and thus strips formulas from ODF spreadsheets even if they’ve been created using the Excel add-in. For the time being businesses might be safer using Office Open XML.

Despite this, ODF is the future. Rob Weir puts it succinctly:

With an open standard, like ODF, I own my document. I choose what application I use to author that document. But when I send that document to you, or post it on my web site, I do so knowing that you have the same right to choose as I had, and you may choose to use a different application and a different platform than I used. That is the power of ODF.

There is a plugin available from Sun for older versions of Word, including: Microsoft Office 2000, Office XP, Office 2003, Office 2007 (Service Pack 1 or higher) or the equivalent stand-alone version of Microsoft Office Word, Excel or PowerPoint.

Governments and educational institutions have been making the move to OpenDocument, and it’s time for the private sector to follow suit. Preserving the integrity of data within critical files should be a top priority. OpenOffice.org is a free and open source productivity suite that with its latest 3.0 release has reached a level of maturity appropriate for business use, and its implementation of the ODF standard is without the caveats associated with Microsoft’s.

The most important benefit is the freedom to choose how to view and edit your data within documents and spreadsheets. But the cost differential between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office should also be a factor. And the history of Microsoft’s unique interpretation of the term ‘interoperability’ should be considered if your business chooses to continue to use closed standards.

Preview Microsoft Office 2007 in the browser

As long as your browser is Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher, you can take the latest edition of Microsoft Office for a test drive without having to install a thing. Experience the bliss of the ribbon, the new UI metaphor that has already won my heart over. I loathe still having to do my work in Office 2003, which we still use at the firm. I can’t wait till we upgrade, but you don’t have to — test it now!

EditGrid betas Excel plugin

From a reader comes news that EditGrid has launched a private beta for an Excel plugin for offline work on spreadsheets. Pretty cool, as Mashable explains:

As there are several levels of integration, the whole of the integration is rather seamless — it takes no time to load sheets from EditGrid to Excel, and you can work offline if need be and update at a later time.

EditGrid made the announcement on their official blog:

When people think of compatibility across spreadsheet applications, people tend to think of fidelity — whether the spreadsheet file exported from one application can be imported into another application without loss of quality or detail. While EditGrid has been doing pretty well in this arena, we are not satisfied with this — exporting spreadsheet data from EditGrid into a file means that the data have become “offline”. It means that the user loses something — the ability to get real-time updated data and collaborate with each other online — that the user is entitled to on EditGrid.

It’s a huge step on the way to mainstream usage in industry. I didn’t see this coming, but now that I’m aware of it, it seems like such an obvious extension to the previously strictly online app.

Sign up for the private beta and give the future of spreadsheets a whirl.

Spreadsheets: My thoughts on EditGrid

I recently tried out EditGrid, in response to a post by Dennis on recent enhancements. I had already been using Google Spreadsheets a little bit, but not too much, because, quite frankly, it just wasn’t all that intuitive. I consider myself a fairly advanced Excel user, and Google Spreadsheets just didn’t have the same level of ease of use.

EditGrid screenI blogged about Google’s spreadsheets app before, but never from a personal point of view. I barely used the thing. I had a few random sheets up which I’d authored in Excel, but never really did much editing of them.

(Google Gears may allow one to use the application offline in the future. I think we may see more business usage when this happens. Currently Google Gears is offered for Reader only.)

So, I was open to other options. I’d already decided that I was going to move all my personal documents online, since I didn’t have anything all that confidential personally to protect. My financial data isn’t stored in Excel and if it was, I might be hesitant to upload those files.

I work with Excel so much for work, I thought it would be hard for a web app to make a positive impression on me by comparison. But right away EditGrid presented me with an interface that looks and works reassuringly similar to Excel. The top menu even has those familiar options: File, Edit, View, Format, Insert and Data!

EditGrid looks so much like Excel it is really easy for someone familiar with Microsoft’s spreadsheet software to jump right in and be productive right away, which is something I couldn’t say about Google Spreadsheets. Google succeeds in simplifying every piece of software it releases, but I actually think EditGrid’s strategy works better for what is still a pretty geeky type of software.

And it can’t hurt having some information not firmly in the clutches of Google.

Right now I think EditGrid is a more complete spreadsheet app compared to Google’s, but both still trail Excel in features and ease of use. I’m hoping they can close the gap sooner rather than later.

Google continues to improve Spreadsheet

Last week Google released an update for their Spreadsheet web app, and it shows they’re continuing to improve the product. This is a good thing, as I previously wasn’t too impressed.

Google ExperimentalNow you can right-click on cells and select basic options from a context menu such as cut, copy and paste, and insert and delete rows and columns in a similar fashion to Excel.

Best of all, Google isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel through the way users interact with the spreadsheet. Tables aren’t a new thing and we’re all comfortable with how they work.

Not so good, however, is that I can see the day when I may have to eat my original words – that this thing wouldn’t catch on. If Google keeps this up, it just might.