Open Office Wars

OpenOffice is a suite of free office tools originally developed as StarOffice for Sun Microsystems to compete with Microsoft Office. Microsoft and Sun have both developed XML support for their office suites, with major implications for managing structured content. Advanced content management systems allow contributors to edit in standard office documents, and XML simplifies the ingestion of that content into a CMS.

The community submitted OpenOffice XML as a proposed standard to OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) four years ago. According to OASIS, the purpose of the OpenDocument Committee is to "create an open, XML-based file-format specification for office applications. This means the file format is not specialized for a certain application, but it provides a formal standard for arbitrary office applications. This includes Microsoft Office, but is not limited to it." IBM Workplace is among those using OpenDocument.

Many governments around the world have announced support for open software, and early last year, the state of Massachusetts said that by 2007, it will only purchase office software compatible with OpenDocument. (Note that OASIS is based in Massachusetts). The OpenDocument initiative was led by Eric Criss, former state administration and finance secretary, and Peter Quinn, state CIO). Forrester Research (also in Massachusetts) recently reported that more than half of 128 large North American enterprises are using open-source software and another 19% would be using it soon.

In September 2005, OpenDocument was submitted for ratification to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Within weeks, Microsoft reacted with a statement supporting standards, but announced it would promulgate a new Office Open XML standard, instead of adopting OpenDocument, despite the fact that Microsoft is a member of OASIS. Microsoft's Office Open XML was formally proposed as a standard by Jean Paoli, senior director of XML architecture for Microsoft (and co-creator of the W3C XML standard), in December 2005 to ECMA International (the creators of the ECMAscript version of standardized Javascript, and recently of the standard for C#, Microsoft's competitor for Java).

Many critics and analysts saw the Microsoft announcement as a thinly disguised plan to protect its new Office 12 suite, which will ship with the new Office Open XML and a license covenant that Microsoft will not sue developers who build applications that inter-work with Office 12.

On the other hand, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney liked the move, saying, "the commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft's progress in creating an open document format. If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards." This set the scene for a debate in Boston at the Gilbane Conference on Content Management Technologies between David Berlind, executive editor of ZDNet, and Morgan Reed, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist. Reed is VP for public affairs at the Association for Competitive Technologies, which represents a number of small independent software vendors in Massachusetts, but whose muscle comes from large clients like Microsoft. (I videotaped the debate and serve it online from CMS Review > Videos.) Berlind invited Reed to interpret the headline of his press release, "The new Microsoft/Apple/Intel Standard Confirms the Failing of the Massachusetts ODF Plan." Berlind asked, "Is it a standard? This really sticks a knife in and twists it hard!" Reed replied, "It's being offered as a standard to ECMA. But no. We should have said proposed standard." Berlind challenged him again, asking, "What would you say if the state endorsed Microsoft's Office Open XML standard?" Reed replied, "We would oppose it. The state should issue goals and requirements, not adopt standards from anyone." Indeed, gigantic political and economic forces seemed to be at play behind the technology issues in this debate.

Within a couple of weeks of the debate, Peter Quinn told his family on Christmas Eve that he would be stepping down as state CIO. He then described in a staff memo events that "have been very disruptive and harmful to my personal well-being, my family, and many of my closest friends. This is a burden I will no longer carry." Computerworld reported that "The Romney administration recently launched an investigation into out-of-state trips taken by Quinn to speak at technology conferences over the past two years, following a report in the Boston Globe questioning the appropriateness of such trips. Quinn was found to have done nothing wrong following the investigation, according to the Globe." To get a ring-side seat for future developments in this highly charged conflict, I've become a member of OASIS, where I hope to keep an eye on both the OpenDocument and DITA Technical Committees. As an independent developer of software for both Microsoft and Apple (I wrote MacPublisher, the first desktop publishing program for the Mac in 1984), I hope I can report fairly from both trenches in these Open Office Wars. Stay tuned.