Friend Me
 Follow Me
 Feed Me
a blog by ken pardue

Archive for May, 2009

On Oracle/Sun, and OpenOffice.org

Friday, May 1st, 2009

So maybe I’m just odd, but the only thing that I find that really interests and concerns me in the Oracle takeover of Sun is that OpenOffice.org’s future is seriously in question.  I was hoping that in the time between the announcement and now more talk would have been generated about OpenOffice.org, but it seems there are some little projects called Java, MySQL, and Solaris that people would prefer to talk about.  What concerns me most isn’t that OpenOffice might fall into obsolescence and go away, but rather that the OpenDocument Format might share the same fate.

OpenDocument is, at its heart, a noble goal to do for productivity suites what HTML did for the Internet: serve as a vendor-neutral, ubiquitous file format providing for consistent presentation and editing across all platforms and all programs that adhere to the standard.  Ideally, there would be no worrying about whether or not a file is in Word, WordPerfect, Pages, or {insert your text editor here}.  With this issue, it’s not about championing an open source cause or being anti-Microsoft, it’s about interoperability and universal access.

But, though OpenDocument achieved ratification as an ISO standard way back in 2006, it has failed to live up to that purpose.  Progress has been made, mind you.  Many governments have adopted OpenDocument as their standard of choice citing that they don’t want to be locked into a single-company vendor, and the latest Service Pack for Microsoft Office 2007 brings native OpenDocument support.  But, there are relatively few programs that support it outside of OpenOffice.org.  Sure, NeoOffice, Lotus Symphony, and Go-OO do, but they’re all derivatives of OpenOffice.org.  But even between them, much less non-OpenOffice derived software, OpenDocument files appear differently.  Bullets are different sizes, text is kerned and wrapped at different locations, drawings and figures overlaid on top of one another shift.  Sometimes, document presentation changes between saves even in the same program.

That’s because at its heart OpenOffice.org is an obsoleted piece of software that’s been hanging around since the late 1990’s and waiting to die.  There, I said it.  It’s frustrating to use and has an arcane user interface at best.  But, it’s only slightly more frustrating than Microsoft Word, which is why the open source world settled upon it as being a cornerstone of their offerings.  Unfortunately, without strong corporate support from Oracle or the spinning off of OpenOffice.org into an independent foundation (AND strong corporate support), it looks like OpenOffice.org will continue to atrophy leaving no real open source competitor to Microsoft’s Office suite until the day when cloud computing produces a viable alternative.

I really like Apple’s iWork software.  It’s document management done right, focusing on and promoting the proper use of Paragraph Styles and Character Styles.  But, unfortunately, Apple elected to make its own XML-based file format for the documents, which is compatible with neither Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org.  iWork can export to the old Microsoft binary file format, but not OpenDocument, and you can only save natively to the iWork file formats, and on top of that it’s a Mac-only program so I’m not likely to get the others in my office on board with it.

iWork ’09 was released in January, and since Apple has pulled out of MacWorld for 2009 I see the iWork falling into more of an annual May/June release schedule.  But once again I’m not hedging any bets that Apple is working on native interoperability with any format but its own.  And maybe for practical reasons that’s not a bad thing since Apple probably couldn’t have released a program with such innovative concepts if they had to adhere to a document standard that has its origins in the last millennium.  At this point though, I really don’t care if everybody settles on ODF, OOXML, or iWork XML… as long as everybody settles on something.  I’m starting to be of the opinion that open standards are great for advocating freedom of choice, but in many cases poor for practicality.

If I sound frustrated it’s because I am.  I spent the better part of the last year slowly converting our business documents to OpenDocument format.  The sudden uncertain future of the reference implementation of the format has me a little miffed.