Alliance forms to promote OpenDocument Format

Group could have supported Massachusetts CIO in push for ODF

More than 35 U.S. and international IT vendors, organizations, academic institutions and industry bodies are due to announce the formation of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) Alliance today.

The new body, whose initial members include IBM, Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., will focus on further evangelizing the OpenDocument electronic file format.

Open Document Format for Office Applications, also known as OpenDocument, is being developed by the OASIS standards body as an XML file format. The format covers text, spreadsheets and other document types created by office productivity suites. Supporters of OpenDocument include offerings from open-source players and Sun's StarOffice and IBM's Workplace software suites.

The ODF Alliance formed under the auspices of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) trade association. Other IT vendors in the alliance include Corel Corp., EMC Corp., Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. The initial member roster lists a variety of organizations from France, India, Japan and the U.K., according to Ken Wasch, SIIA president.

If such a body had existed last year, it's possible the organization could have provided much-needed support to a CIO in Massachusets, Wasch said in a phone interview yesterday.

In September of last year, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn finalized a policy for state agencies to develop a gradual plan for migration to OpenDocument, beginning Jan. 1, 2007 (See "Massachusetts plans to abandon Microsoft Office"). The plan would involve phasing out the state's use of Microsoft Corp.'s Office software suite. With Massachusetts one of the first states to espouse such a decision, the move placed Quinn under intense public scrutiny and political pressure.

Quinn quit his job in early January after becoming in his own words "a lightning rod" with respect to any IT initiative under consideration by the commonwealth (See "Massachusetts appoints acting CIO").

"A tragedy happened in Massachusetts," said Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer at Sun. "Cynicism allowed a good man to be hounded out of his job for no reason."

Quinn's replacement, Louis Gutierrez, has pledged to continue the state's move toward OpenDocument.

If a similar situation were to occur now, the ODF alliance would help to support a CIO with white papers and case studies of successful ODF adoptions as ammunition to counter naysayers, Wasch said. One of the alliance's missions is to "remove the FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] factor of adopting OpenDocument," he said.

The American Library Association decided to join the ODF alliance at the inception of the organization to ensure that the voice of libraries and nonprofit organizations is represented, said Patrice McDermott, the ALA's deputy director of the office of government relations.

"It's a natural alliance for us because the goal of the ODF alliance is in tune with our goal to provide access to information," she said. "The alliance is a very positive development."

However, one issue that concerns the library association is whether software using OpenDocument will be compatible with computer applications used by people with disabilities, McDermott said. She added that she has been assured that such issues will be resolved by the end of this year.

"If it's not solved over the next nine months, we would have to withdraw from the alliance," McDermott said. "We can't be party to something that doesn't provide access to all."

The plan to put the ODF alliance together came about when a number of vendors met at IBM's offices in Armonk, N.Y., in early November of last year, according to Sun's Phipps. "We've reached a nexus as we move from binary file formats to XML."

Wasch at the SIIA agrees with Phipps. He said the alliance has come together at a "serendipitous time" as user demand for an open document format increases and major IT vendors are embracing the OpenDocument format.

There's also a proliferation of devices on which users are creating electronic documents.

"More documents are created by thumb on BlackBerries and PDAs than by fingers on desktops," Wasch said. "We need to make sure that documents are independent of the application that created them."

Microsoft meanwhile continues to tout its proposed Open XML specification and has declared publicly its preference for a number of open document standards to flourish in the future, not just OpenDocument. "Is Microsoft invited to the ODF alliance? Absolutely," Wasch said. "The door is open. Ultimately, I think they will adopt ODF."

The ODF Alliance's Web site also launched today.

An individual from the SIIA will shortly be named to head the alliance, and the members of the body's steering committee will also be identified, Wasch said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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