Debate over document formats not just academic

It’s certainly an understatement to suggest that open source dominated most of the IT headlines in the last month or two. Microsoft, Novell, Oracle, Adobe, Sun and Red Hat have all had something substantial to say recently regarding their visions of open source’s future. To be sure, most of the announcements represent some kind of assertion of power, an attempt to be a player influencing the direction of open source growth. Most want to ensure that the growth of openness is guided or narrowed in one way or the other. Each wants to make sure that their particular imprint on the way Linux and friends are developed and distributed takes hold.

Most people I know, and most analysts I have read, have indicated fairly extreme conclusions. To some, Microsoft’s deal with Novell and Sun’s moves to finally open source Java are seen as milestones without which open source could never become sufficiently mainstream. To others, the deal indicates a deadly mutation that threatens open source with patents the way SCO tried to threaten it with copyrights. I’ve seen calls to embrace Novell for its actions and others calling for total boycotts.

I personally subscribe to neither extreme, and view most of the moves with extremely cautious optimism. I see the deals as neither paradigm-shifting breakthroughs nor the end of the open source world as we know it. Microsoft does have a history of chewing up and spitting out its “partners,” but that’s Novell’s problem and not that of the greater open source world. I do believe the software patent issues are serious but the community is extremely resilient.

Personally, the event that caught my attention – flying under the radar of all the heavyweight news – was a quiet blog entry on regarding the development and endorsement of the Uniform Office Format (UOF). According to the entry, the UOF is to become the default and only office document format supported by the Chinese government. The UOF was developed through an open process that was designed to build on existing open standards, driven by the needs of document creators and users rather than software vendors and developers. What a concept. Adoption of the UOF standard throughout China makes the government of Massachusetts’ adoption of the OpenDocument format pale by comparison.

Just before you jump to complain about one more standard, it should be noted that there is active work to harmonize OpenDocument and UOF, endorsed and supported by both sides. Conspicuously left out of the equation is the proposed Microsoft alternative to OpenDocument, called OpenXML. The assertion of UOF, and its avoidance of the kind of political manipulation that characterized the document standards debate in Massachusetts, indicates to me the coming of a major change in the way international IT standards and policies will be developed. In my own international exposure through standards bodies and other forums, American bullying on issues of technology standards and policy has been commonplace. The Chinese assertion of UOF, despite the standards noises made by the other American-led initiatives, indicates a new-found maturity and confidence that is sure to be watched by other countries.

The debate over document formats, and who has the power over them, has far more than merely academic relevance. Even IT users who don’t care much for open source can realize the value of having a truly open format that is controlled by users rather than vendors. Only in IT do the makers of the tools have so much power over the finished product. Use of old vendor-made “standards” has led to situations in which users can’t access their own files because they don’t have the old tools anymore.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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