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Industry Insight

Getting with the open document format

Government's decision to adopt open document format is a bold one and will not come unchallenged.

In the wider market, open document format (ODF) could have an enormously positive impact, but gaining the benefits offered by the format depends on several key factors.

There has been much talk in recent months regarding open standards, specifically those that relate to document formatting. This has been due to activities surrounding the possible ratification of Microsoft's proposed Open XML document format becoming an approved open standard with the Open Source Institute (OSI) and the South African government's announcement that it will standardise on the existing ODF for all communications.

These are exciting times for open standards, but it is important to rationally approach the shift to using them in everyday business.

The possibility that the whole world could one day use open standards for documents is a positive one. Imagine never having to deal with garbled formatting in a document again, or always being able to open documents from anyone, without having to ask them to change the format. It's an awesome prospect, and this reality might be on the way.

Setting the standard

But first the dust must settle surrounding formats, with Microsoft attempting to drive a second standard into the market that may potentially negate the advantages of open standards, as there is not much use in having two incompatible standards for the same thing. To fully realise the benefits, everyone needs to be on the same page.

Government's decision to adopt ODF is a brave and noble one but will not be implemented without its challenges. Firstly, government must address how to implement the standard across all of its departments; either by moving to a platform such as OpenOffice.org, or by installing filters for existing deployments of Microsoft Office that allow it to open and save ODF documents.

Next, government must drive internal acceptance of the standard and educate its officials and the public in terms of its use, as all government communications will be in this format. And considering that most people probably do not know what ODF is, the education component of the challenge is a daunting one.

Finally, government must face the response from proprietary vendors, specifically Microsoft.

Implementing ODF

Bright future

The possibility that the whole world could one day use open standards for documents is a positive one. Muggie van Staden is MD of Obsidian.

In March, it will be decided whether Open XML will be ratified as an open standard. Should Microsoft's standard successfully be approved, it will provide the company with much leverage to encourage doubt in government at its decision for ODF.

By then, however, government will be well on its way to implementing the ODF standard and updating its departments, with a commitment to have finally completed the move by 2009.

The public, therefore, should follow government's lead. It was a bold move for government to put its documents where its mouth is and it should encourage the private sector to do the same.

Companies can move to ODF by installing filters into Microsoft Office, which are freely available for download on the Internet. Star Office is a powerful productivity suite that is now available free too. An alternative is OpenOffice.org, which has also been proven to be business-ready, being open source software and highly customisable.

Switching to a standard from a technical perspective is the easy part. Dealing with people and processes, however, is where the real challenge comes in. And in the case of document formats, deals with not only internal concerns, but those of the market at large too.

Get ready to worry

Organisations must also educate the people they do business with. Send out documents in ODF and if faced with the response that users can not read it, ask them why they do not have support for an international ISO standard - because that is what ODF is (ISO should not be confused with OSI).

Of course, it would be incorrect to say the move can be made without any worry. There is the possibility that come March 2008, Microsoft will successfully have a secondary standard ratified, which will leave the market with two disparate standards for the same thing.

But hopefully by that time, ODF will have proliferated enough for it to override the other standards, which is looking doubtful for ratification to begin with and questionable as to its openness.

* Muggie van Staden is MD of Obsidian.


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