ODF backer abandons file format in favor of W3C alternative

OpenDocument Foundation claims that its namesake format isn't so open after all

A group that was set up to promote the Open Document Format for Office Applications (ODF) is abandoning its support of that file format in favor of a set of specifications developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The OpenDocument Foundation Inc. doesn't have any control over ODF. But its embrace of the W3C's Compound Document Formats (CDF) adds a new twist to the already acrimonious debate over the possible creation of a universal file format for desktop applications.

The OpenDocument Foundation was formed five years ago to push for the adoption of a universal format. Until recently, the group was focused on the technology upon which it based its existence: ODF, which is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and has been approved as an international standard by the Geneva-based ISO standards body.

But in a blog posting earlier this month, Sam Hiser, vice president and director of business affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, outlined why the group now thinks that CDF is a more viable universal format than ODF is. Foundation officials "have been displeased with the direction of ODF development this year," he wrote. "We find that ODF is not the open format with the open process we thought it was."

Hiser noted that the requirements for a universal file format include full compatibility with Microsoft Corp.'s Office formats, including Office Open XML, the new format that Microsoft created for its Office 2007 suite and that the software vendor is promoting as a rival standard to ODF. CDF meets that requirement better than ODF does, Hiser said in his blog posting.

The W3C's specifications also better supports cross-platform portability, vendor independence and convergence of desktop systems, servers and other hardware devices, he wrote.

In an interview on Monday, Hiser said ODF began losing support within the OpenDocument Foundation last February, when it became clear to members of the group that Sun Microsystems Inc. -- one of the file format's biggest public backers -- was more interested in making its own StarOffice application suite interoperable with Microsoft's Office formats than it was in making ODF work with them.

Hiser said he suspects that the nearly $2 billion payout Sun received from Microsoft as part of a 2004 legal settlement aimed at improving interoperability between the two vendors' products may have something to do with what he sees as Sun's apparent disinterest in making ODF work with Open XML.

"All Sun cares about is its application," Hiser claimed. "Sun never thought of the format as being more important than the application. Sun's position has always been that interoperability with Microsoft formats is outside the scope of ODF."

In response, Doug Johnson, manager of Sun's corporate standards group, said that those claims are simply untrue. Sun supports ODF across many of its technologies and remains committed to ensuring that it is interoperable with any rival document formats, Johnson said.

But Hiser contended that lackluster support for ODF within the OASIS committee that is supposed to be taking the lead in promoting the file format has caused problems in encouraging enterprise users and government agencies to adopt the format.

Because of its decision to start backing CDF instead of ODF, the OpenDocument Foundation will change its name and most likely transform itself into another company or organization, Hiser said. He declined, though, to specify what the group's plans are.

Hiser acknowledged that ODF supporters are angry with the foundation because of its change of heart.

Indeed, Andrew Updegrove, a partner at Boston-based law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP and a vocal supporter of ODF, criticized the OpenDocument Foundation in an e-mail on Monday.

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