Operating Systems

OpenDocument Efforts Debated, Expanded

IBM and Sun Microsystems are apparently banding together to spur adoption of the OpenDocument platform, a standard that is seen by many as one of the true threats to Microsoft’s dominance of the office productivity and document management niche.

Executives from each of the technology companies have signed an open letter inviting technical executives from other tech vendors to a one-day meeting on the subject of how best to advance the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, which is known as OpenDocument. The meeting will take place this Friday at Big Blue headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

Converging Advances

“Political and technical developments in this area are converging,” IBM Vice President Bob Sutor and Sun Chief Open Source Officer Simon Phipps wrote in the letter. “There exists a historic opportunity for a group of like-minded companies, organizations, communities and individuals to drive the widespread global adoption of open document format standards.

“Standardization in this area has the potential to stimulate innovation, provide attractive business opportunities and deliver considerable value to governments, enterprises, organizations, and individuals alike around the world,” the letter says.

Separately, a plan to make Massachusetts the first state to make a complete shift to OpenDocument — at the expense of Microsoft’s Office platform — came under heavy fire. At a Statehouse hearing on the plan to force state agencies to use an open and compatible format by July of 2006 was hit by several groups, including agencies representing disabled workers, who say that Microsoft’s tools are easier for them to use.

That plan by Massachusetts is one of the first and biggest victories to date for the OpenDocument standard.

Policy Hit

Friday’s meeting will feature a keynote talk by Peter Quinn, Massachusetts’ chief information officer, who is spearheading the effort to migrate away from Microsoft Office to more open alternatives that allow greater compatibility.

But Quinn first may have to deal with dissent at home about the requirement to change platforms. Key lawmakers there are raising questions about the cost of abandoning millions of dollars worth of licensed Microsoft products to adopt OpenDocument-friendly alternatives.

During the hearing, Quinn acknowledged failing to consult with disabled workers while formatting the policy, but said that the plan was still on balance a better alternative to ensure that documents would be freely available to the public both now and hundreds of years in the future.

The Massachusetts plan does not dictate what software agencies use as long as it’s compliant with the open format. StarOffice from Sun, OpenOffice and products from IBM and Novell are among those that qualify.

Making Gains

Key vendors have begun to line up behind OpenDocument. Google, for instance, said recently it would work with Sun on product promotion, a move seen as an endorsement of the open format.

Many of those moves may be motivated by anti-Microsoft sentiments, and certainly any alliance between Sun and IBM would qualify, given that both compete with the software giant in many categories.

Red Monk analyst Stephen O’Grady said the Massachusetts decision, while largely symbolic, provided a huge boost to OpenDocument supporters and may be a springboard to further development of the standard and promotion of compatible products.

One key development could be the proposal that seems to be on the table at the meeting this week to set aside competition to promote the overall idea of open document platforms. “A concerted push by some big vendors could raise the profile of open alternatives in the U.S. considerably,” he added.

Meanwhile, O’Grady said recent upgrades to OpenOffice, including the addition of an Access-like database product, may help make it more competitive with the Microsoft Office suite.

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