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.