The solution to this conundrum is a mechanism that does not require customers to continue to buy document software in order to keep their information and documents alive—essentially a multilaterally implemented baseline file format like the ODF (OpenDocument Format), said Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open-source officer, at a news event at Sun's San Francisco offices Wednesday.
This discussion was the latest salvo in the controversy around the ODF and the Microsoft Corp.-sponsored proposal that was last week accepted by Ecma International to produce a standard for office productivity applications that is compatible with Microsoft's Office Open XML Formats.
The ODF (OpenDocument Format) is an XML-based OASIS international office document standard used to store data from desktop applications, such as word processing, presentation and spreadsheet software.
It is meant to enable the free exchange of data between OpenDocument-compliant software packages.
The ODF file format is also designed to be compatible with Microsoft Office, as the technical committee working on this knew it was going to be used to import and export a lot of Microsoft Office documents, Phipps said, adding that he did not believe the format would end up as an archival format.
Sun executives were unified in their call for all global governments, agencies as well as private enterprises, to adopt the ODF standard and, when asked why more in the public and private sector were not doing so, they said they were all closely watching the situation in Massachusetts.
Also held Wednesday was an Open Forum on the Future of Electronic Data Formats for the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Asked what both the public and private sector could be doing around this right now, Phipps said they should implement a consistent document standard, while also starting to undertake pilots with those productivity suites that used the ODF standard to see how viable this would be for their organization.
"Now is the time to start your pilots and start testing, because you are going to want to switch to the multilateral file format when that happens," he said.
Sun is already testing in Germany a document conversion service that converts Word files into ODF, essentially a Web interface that converts them, he said, adding that this technology was not developed as a result of the agreement reached between Sun and Microsoft earlier this year.
"We didn't have the standstill agreement that came with that agreement when we started doing this work, and that [standstill clause] will expire over time, and I don't believe it will have any impact on this conversion tool," he said.
Microsoft, by refuting Oasis and the ODF and instead choosing to get international standards body Ecma to approve its file format standard, continues to embrace a proprietary and closed approach, he added.
"By getting its specification approved by a standards body that does not allow individual members is a strategy to make sure that Microsoft continues to control that standard and thus prevent it from becoming a baseline. At the same time, Microsoft is also trying to prevent a multilateral file format from being implemented," Phipps said.
Piper Cole, Sun's vice president for global government and community affairs, said it is very important that government take a role in what is happening on the document standards front because they are strategic customers who can use their buying power to dictate that a multivendor baseline is created for file formats—just as Massachusetts has done.
"A lot of other governments are also thinking of doing this," she said.
Both Cole and Phipps also called for Microsoft to reconsider its position and join the OpenDocument technical committee.
They join Patrick Gannon, the president and CEO of OASIS, who is also trying to get Microsoft to change course and work with the committee.
He told eWEEK recently that Microsoft had been a sponsor member of the organization for many years and had shown their commitment to advancing work within the OASIS open process.
"The OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee remains open to new participation and contributions. Obviously, Microsoft's expertise in office applications would make them a great asset to the committee, and we continue to encourage them to participate in this effort," he said.
Tim Bray, a Sun Web technologist and co-inventor of XML, said he would like to see office suites become more like the Web.
"When you get a shared standard, all sorts of things will happen and develop and which can never be predicted. The Web is an example of that. I want to be able to read my old files, pay less for the office software and have a standard format," he said.
Asked about Google's support for ODF and Sun's interaction with it around this, Bray said Sun talked to the search engine giant all the time, which had also "poached some fine engineers from the OpenOffice group, so draw any conclusions from that you like."
Asked if there is currently a real problem around file formats and document standards, Phipps said there is, "and we are not willing to have Microsoft as the only company selling software that can actually do and provide what users need," he said.
But it is necessary to also remember that the objective of the ODF technical committee is to create a mechanism to end the problem of document corrosion and provide an alternative to the Microsoft office proprietary file formats, a goal that remains so far unfulfilled, he said.
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