Open document format puts an end to being locked into vendors and technologies

There’s already an alphabet soup of standards out there. So why are so many governments getting excited about ODF? Open Document Format, which was developed by the OASIS industry consortium and uses the XML format, recently became an international standard for saving and exchanging office documents, such as memos, reports, spreadsheets, databases and presentations.

Still not convinced? Consider this: The Bangkok Post reported that file format incompatibility allegedly hindered government recovery efforts after the 2004 tsunami. Since then, the Thai government has made open file formats an immediate priority. But open standards have not been relegated to “developing” nations. In the U.S., for example, victims of Hurricane Katrina who requested aid on the FEMA Web site had to use Internet Explorer. Got Linux? Sorry, out of luck.

More than 280 organizations in 43 countries are part of the ODF Alliance, including Google. A number of governments are also behind it, including Belgium, Denmark, France, India, Thailand and, most recently, Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia has proposed that ODF become a national standard by the end of this year and has recommended it for use in the public sector.

In Belgium, all document exchanges within government must be in an open, standard format by September 2008 – and only ODF is accepted as an open standard. The Danish parliament has unanimously agreed to make the use of open standards mandatory in national IT solutions by 2008, paving the way for ODF. And India is piloting deployments of ODF software within government departments.

So what exactly is this acronym all about? ODF was developed by a number of organizations, so it can be used for free in any software, whether it’s open source or proprietary, from desktop packages such as open source Open Office to commercial software such as IBM Lotus.

According to Gartner Group, ODF will be required by 50 per cent of government and 20 per cent of commercial organizations by 2010. The research firm also says the future of Microsoft’s proposed Open XML format is unclear.

OASIS, on the other hand, has been working on an XML representation of documents for the past four years (its technical committee is led by Sun, Adobe and IBM). The International Standards Organization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) have already approved ODF for release as ISO/IEC 26300. What this means is ODF has become the official XML document format, providing greater competition to the likes of Microsoft.

And while governments may not care about the technicalities behind ODF, they care about what it means: they will no longer be locked into any one vendor or any one solution. As governments move away from paper and become increasingly dependent on electronic files, documents and records, there’s a growing concern about the control and management of their own information. Governments don’t want to invest in or be locked into a single technology platform. They want to know their files, documents and records are accessible across platforms, and won’t be held hostage down the road as technologies become obsolete, vendors no longer support older versions of their software, or those vendors are acquired or go out of business. Take health care, for example. It makes sense for electronic medical records to be kept in an open format that can be shared between different hospital systems and emergency rescue organizations.

Governments also want greater accessibility to users who don’t have Microsoft Office applications. Even Microsoft has acknowledged the ODF movement by announcing that Office users will be able to save documents as ODF files. While critics accuse Microsoft of doing this so it won’t be shut out of government procurement opportunities, on the plus side it could be a useful tool to help people transition to an ODF environment. So, yes, ODF is yet another acronym – but this is one people might want to remember.

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance journalist and former TIG editor. You can contact her at [email protected]

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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