Document formats and policy making

I haven’t been blogging on my regular blogs all that much lately (whereas I have been going like a Boeing on Jaiku) in part because I am working on something new. I have a new gig over at the African Commons Project (the ACP facilitates Creative Commons South Africa and the iCommons presence here) where I am now a fellow (aka volunteer). In the last few days I have found myself caught up in a debate that is going on globally about something that seems pretty mundane and which is like to have a powerful impact on the move to open source and open access: document formats. This post reflects my thoughts and ideas on this topic and is not necessarily representative of ACP’s views.

The debate, as I understand it (and there is a lot of technical stuff that goes over my head) is as follows: Document formats determine the applications that are used to take advantage of those document formats. If a document format is standardised then the platform that supports that document format becomes very important. There are two document formats that are being promoted as standards or worthy of being declared standards and these are the OASIS’ OpenDocument Format (or “ODF”) and Microsoft’s Office Open XML (or “ooxml”). Ooxml was introduced in Office 2007 and is the format identified by an “x” at the end of the file extension – Office 2007’s document formats are .docx, .xlsx, .pptx and so on. ODF is the default document format for applications like OpenOffice, NeoOffice (for the Mac) and KOffice (for Linux), not to mention a number of other applications supporting that document format.

Of the two, ODF has been certified by ISO as a standard and this certification is a big deal because ODF is regarded as an international standard document format. This means that ODF has been found to be a high quality, interoperable and reliable document format. One of the arguments OASIS and ODF supporters make is that the format is truly an open source format being developed constantly by OASIS which is independent of the software developers who develop software like OpenOffice and NeoOffice that use ODF. In fact, OpenOffice, for example, is an open source project itself. If you add the fact that OpenOffice, NeoOffice and KOffice (the main open source office applications) are free, you can begin to appreciate the value of ODF to a government which has to roll out an office suite to thousands, tens of thousands or more desktops. Put simply, ther are no license fees for the software and documents created in ODF can be used anywhere in that ecosystem.

Microsoft is pushing to have ooxml certified by ISO as well and its argument is that ooxml is an open document format as well. Its specifications have been published and anyone is free to develop applications based on this specification. Like ODF, ooxml is based on XML (they use different schemas). The difficulty with the Microsoft argument is that ooxml is developed by Microsoft and is closely tied to its office suite and specifically to the latest version. This means that short of anyone else developing applications to support ooxml (I am not aware of anyone else developing software to support ooxml other than Microsoft), you have to buy Microsoft Office 2007 and above to make use of ooxml. This, of course, has a substantial cost implication for bulk users.

Microsoft is arguing that there is room for two standards and I haven’t seen any mention of an argument that ODF should not be a standard, rather that it is ultimately beneficial for users if there is a choice between two seemingly open standards. This doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons, not least of which is the argument that two standards means no standard. If there are two standards then what is the point. While there are some ODF-ooxml translators, the challenge comes when someone creates a .docx document and sends it to someone who uses OpenOffice and can’t open it without a translator, if at all. Imagine the scale of that challenge when a government settles on ooxml and publishes documents like forms, legislation and policy documents in ooxml. This forces everyone who wants to access the documents to buy Microsoft Office. It doesn’t help those people that they may be running a cheap computer with OpenOffice. Of course to run Microsoft Office you either have to be running Windows or Mac OS (the next version of Office for the Mac will probably support ooxml) which really doesn’t help people or organisations who can’t afford to run those systems and who have chosen to use the free operating system, Linux.

The fundamental issue here is open access. There are technical arguments for and against ooxml and ODF but, to me, the primary issue is a policy issue. If a truly open document format is made the standard document format it means that there is far greater open access to documents created and published using that standard which means that when the government publishes forms to access a pension, apply for an ID book or even legislation, policy documents and other information that citizens should have access to, anyone can access those documents meaningfully.

Microsoft’s concern is for the continued sustainability of its business which includes the sale of its operating system and its office software. If users started moving wholesale to applications like OpenOffice or NeoOffice then they are also able to move to Linux or the Mac (although for cost reasons Linux is better) and this means a severe bump in Microsoft’s road. There is another option available. Microsoft is an OASIS sponsor and it is free to participate in the development of ODF. If it chose to do this it has an opportunity to help innovate and improve ODF and then build applications on top of it. This means that Microsoft Office could be based on ODF instead of ooxml and you would pay for Microsoft Office because it is, in many ways, a superior office suite. Unfortunately Microsoft chooses not to participate in ODF’s development and so we find ourselves in this debate.

I am representing ACP at a meeting at the SABS next week where we hope to be given an opportunity to participate in the debate and vote. The meeting is a further meeting intended to explore Microsoft’s push to have ooxml approved as a standard South Africa supports. If it is successful, this will improve its chances of having ISO certify ooxml as a competing standard. If the committee votes against Microsoft’s proposal it will mean a victory for open access proponents in South Africa and a boost for the open source community, especially in the context of the government’s stated preference for platforms based on open standards.

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