Coming to Your Desktop Soon: Clash of the Titans


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Vendors always compete for your computing desktop. Some competition takes a whimsical form, like "Flying Toaster" screen savers. Some competition is strategic: operating systems, browsers, Internet services, and more recently, desktop search. Another big battle is brewing for your desktop. This time, it is about content—specifically, office documents: word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet files. The titans this time are Microsoft and Google, with assistance primarily from Sun and OpenOffice, and with lots of lesser players also getting into the act. Office products account for a large portion of Microsoft's profits, so I believe this will be a Battle Royale.

You can blame several technologies and cross-currents on this including XML, the cost of office software, and open source efforts to provide vendor independence, predictability, and peer-review to assure quality products. The first shot in this battle came from Massachusetts, ever famous for its feistiness, which started centuries ago with the Boston Tea Party. In September, the Massachusetts secretary of Administration and Finance, Eric Kriss, described how important to the commonwealth it is for office documents to be "open," conforming to standards. He listed three criteria for openness. First, the standards must have no or absolutely minimal legal restrictions. The standards must be published. And those standards must be subject to peer review. Specifically, Massachusetts supported the OASIS "OpenDocument" standard and, by implication, office systems like Sun's StarOffice and OpenOffice that implement that standard. I admit it: when I first saw this news I thought, "There they go again." Then I read that Indonesia's Ministry of Research and Technology was also leaning towards OpenDocument, as are many members of the European Union. Wait, maybe this isn't just a localized rebellion.

Microsoft anticipated this threat to its office suite franchise, but may have limited options to fend off this interest in OpenDocument. Last year Microsoft began discussing its plans for its upcoming office suite, which would stop using proprietary formats like "rich text format," or RTF, as the internal expression for Word documents. Instead, it would use XML. If that were akin to changing from one hidden code to another that you don't see anyway, it wouldn't matter to most people, and "clash" would be more like a tilting at windmills. However, RTF (and its XML expression) belong to Microsoft, who controls and licenses them. And RTF certainly isn't peer-reviewed. In short, even though Microsoft calls its new format the "Open XML File Format," that format is not open. By contrast, the office suite from OpenOffice meets those requirements and has been XML-based from the get-go.

Some might say, "XML is XML. Does it really matter whose XML I use, since I may not see it anyway?"

If you (like me) resist switching yet again to another office product or file format, then you may ask, "Can't we just cover our heads, let this whole thing blow over, and then use the tools we know?" Unfortunately, we can't. Are you still using VisiCalc on 5" floppy disks? 'Nuff said. In time, old formats won't be supported, but even if they were, the use of XML in office documents—for openness as well as the ability to extract more value from those documents—will hasten their commercial adoption. Although Microsoft will offer converters for old formats, Microsoft itself is doing away with file extensions like ".doc," and instead employing a new format similar to that developed by OpenOffice: zip files containing document data, graphics or multimedia, metadata, and possibly other modules. Office document extensions will append the letter x as in .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx, for MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, respectively. Converters will be made available to convert legacy documents to the new formats, and vice versa. Still, even if these converters will work perfectly all the time (a big if), that is still an extra step.

So if users of previous versions of MS Office will have to change sooner or later anyway, many may ask themselves, "Why not consider a far less expensive, open-source alternative?" Although most consumers are not familiar with Sun, they all know Google.

With U.S. states and several foreign countries strongly considering that same alternative, OpenOffice (and products built on it) warrant a second look. OpenOffice also offers some non-XML capabilities that are compelling in their own right: one-click PDF export, the ability to save presentations or drawings to Flash format, the ability through an ActiveX control to view MS Office documents in a browser window, WordPerfect and Microsoft filters, and the list goes on . . . all available in more than 30 languages and major computing platforms. And the XML story is even better. OpenOffice supports the XML standard for forms, XForms, and can take advantage of other XML standards such as SVG or Dublin Core. Open Source is coming out and the outcome of this battle will affect all of us, and our office content, for years to come.