Novell, ODF and Castles in the Sand

I posted an update to this story this morning, which you can find here.

Things are changing very fast in the ODF landscape right now: Last week, Corel announced it would provide limited support by mid-2007 for ODF (open, view and edit of text only – but not save), and greater support for OOXML – presentations and spreadsheets as well as text.  Yesterday, Carol Sliwa at ComputerWorld released a detailed story on Microsoft's anti-ODF lobbying in Massachusetts.  Later this week, Ecma will formally vote to adopt OOXML and submit it to ISO for consideration (expect things to pick up on a number of fronts when that happens). 

And yesterday, Novell announced that it would support OOXML in its version of OpenOffice, to a showing of great hostility by many in the open source community who were already incensed over Novell's recent collaboration agreement with Microsoft (see, for example, Pamela Jones piece at Groklaw, titled Novel "Forking"  For a different perspective, see David Berlind's take at ZDNet on the same news. 

I don't want to let the Novell announcement go by without comment.  At the same time, I don't want to get down into the weeds regarding whether Novell is selling out (and if so, who it is they are selling out, and to what effect), or how this latest decision may factor into the long-term strategy of either Novell or Microsoft, or affect the fortunes of OOXML.  Instead, I'd like to put this latest news in the broader context of all of the ODF developments we have witnessed since August a year ago, when Massachusetts announced the inclusion of ODF in the latest version of its Enterprise Technical Reference Model. 

If I pan back and look at this series of events, what I see is an inexorable march of progress by ODF, and the Novell announcement as just the latest in a series of concessions to ODF's importance by companies that might otherwise prefer to see it die rather than flourish. 

If we look at the Novell press release, for example, here’s what we see regarding a few significant points:

Novell is cooperating with Microsoft and others on a project to create bi-directional open source translators for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations between and Microsoft Office, with the word processing translator to be available first, by the end of January 2007.

The important words I see here are “bi-directional” (as in, you can easily convert Word documents and ODF-based documents back and forth), as well as the news that Novell (unlike Corel) will support document interchange between presentations and spreadsheets as well as text documents.  I also see that all of the most important functionality (text) will be available imminently.  Next I focus on the following:

The translators will be made available as plug-ins to Novell’s product. Novell will release the code to integrate the Open XML format into its product as open source and submit it for inclusion in the project. As a result, end users will be able to more easily share files between Microsoft Office and, as documents will better maintain consistent formats, formulas and style templates across the two office productivity suites.

Here, I note that Novell will be making its plugin codes available to the open source community, meaning that others can make use of these capabilities.  Presumably, with the cooperation of Microsoft, this will allow very high quality document conversions – the next best thing, I assume, to Office supporting ODF itself.  Will it support conversion of all 200 Office borders?  I expect not, but I’m not too troubled, either (how many borders do you use?)

Is that a fork?  It doesn’t seem that way to me, and I don’t see Microsoft asserting any patents against code that it encourages its partner to contribute to  And if no one chooses to use that code in their own ODF compliance software, I don’t see that as being problematic, either.  It may be that one of the other converters under development may turn out better.  Either way, there’s no reason for every software package to be identical, or there would be no reason to have multiple versions of software to begin with (or distros of Linux, or, to some extent, open source licenses at all).

But to return to the big picture, what I really see here is a circle of legitimacy of ODF that continues to widen, with more bridges being built all the time between ODF software packages – and more importantly, between ODF-compliant software users and users of other software.  More and more vendors are concluding that they can’t avoid making ODF functionality available to their customers, and also that they need to make it more and more easy for ODF-formatted documents to coexist easily in a world that is transitioning away from proprietary software and documents based on proprietary formats.

No one could have assumed that we would wake up one day in a world where all software supported ODF.  In fact, If you had asked me a year ago where I expected we would be today, I would not have predicted that we would be anywhere near the high water mark of ODF adoption that has been achieved to date. 

So no, I can’t look at the Novell announcement as being anything other than further good news for ODF.  If there are aspects that have negatives (as I realize there are), I see them as temporary holding actions that are not likely to represent permanently defensible positions.  The run of the tide is clear, and sand castles never win.

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Comments (6)

  1. I think the Novell announcement reflects more on the fact that MS are worried about being sidelined with their format.
    With the ISO standard of ODF in place, they want to ensure there is no de facto obstacle to the use of their format regardless of the software package used.

    To clarfiy, in the end I think it comes down to this:

    MS Office has native OOXML format and a plugin is being developed to deal with ODF.
    OOo has native ODF and Novell has just announced a plugin to deal with OOXML.

    Whether MS plan to break any plugins at a later date once their format has had formal / de facto adoption remains for the future and the conspiracy theorists.

    P. Richardson (a.k.a. phantomjinx)

    • Yes, M/S is bound to be concerned about ODF; it isn’t in their nature to let competition just do its own thing.

      But I’m in favour of all steps increasing interoperability, because that is the only possible way for ODF to get anywhere.  If it weren’t for the fact that OpenOffice supports Word document format, I probably wouldn’t use it.  The computing world will use mostly MS Office for the foreseeable future, & so the transition to ODF should be made as seamless as possible.  Being able to produce OOXML from your OpenOffice suite, for the benefit of those still using MS Office, is part of that.

      It’s likely that M/S will try to assassinate ODF in any way possible, but if ODF isn’t made readily convertable to & from MS Office formats, it will die without M/S even needing to step in.

  2. The only concern I have about the Novell deal is that MS has very likely filed patent coverage on the software needed to make an OfficeXML to XML converter- whether or not the patents are valid or enforceable is moot.  They’ve got the financial resources (Much like RIAA has…) to bankrupt a defendant before they can get it all to trial.  When that 5 years is up or if it’s NOT Novell making the thing, are the other parties out there going to get threatened with lawsuits?

    I’d rather pass on support if it means that.

  3. This is a bit of an optimistic view on the situation. From history, it will be clear that this has always been Microsoft’s strategy – remember Sybase? Or OS/2?

    What Microsoft is doing here should be clear:
    1. Push ECMA (they’ve done this in the past with JavaScript – we all know how “standardised” Microsoft’s implementation is) to publish their low quality and of technical dubious merit Office XML “standard” (ha!)
    2. Push ECMA to push this “standard” to ISO.

    What happens then? Well, we all know which Office suite dominates the market – MS Office. Microsoft then ensures that ODF – a technically superior and much higher quality standard – remains forever a niche standard.

    Who wins? Not the consumer certainly. If you’re thinking “a standard is a standard, no matter where it comes from”, think again. You need only look at the mess of browser compatibility amongst so-called standards to realise how Microsoft intends to hijack the process of standardisation of document formats.

  4. A) the converter is in C#, so you need to use the encumbered Mono to use the converter.

    B) its a bsd-like license, wanna bet there will be a paid version with full OOXML spec support (perhaps by MS themselves), and the basic one gets rudimentary features?

    C) They are trying to kill ODF

  5. from james governor, RedMonk:

    spoke to jean paoli this morning. The ECMA OpenXML stuff is covered by the recent OSP non patent assertion umbrella, fwiw. he laughed like a drain when i said its a shame it took a strong alternative for MS to get its shit together. i want openxml to be more open, so i am not going to complain as it becomes more so. but i am still trying to parse all this stuff.

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