≡ Menu

Add-in finitum

In this post, I will take another look at the Microsoft ODF Add-in debate, suggest some criteria for use in evaluating file format integration, and use those criteria to evaluate both Office 2007’s support for the ODF formats, and OpenOffice’s support for Microsoft’s formats.

My examination of the ODF Add-in for Word (here and here) has sparked a spirited discussion on both sides of the issue. A balanced view is given by Jason Brooks on eWeek.com:

It’s certainly going too far to call Microsoft’s currently lukewarm support for ODF a change of heart, but it is nonetheless an encouraging instance of Microsoft listening to its customers. We call on Microsoft to make way for ODF in the standard supported-file-formats list giving it at least the same stature as the formats of the suite’s once-fierce rivals.

In that spirit I’d like to propose some evaluation criteria for what first-class file format integration looks like, so you’ll recognize it when you see it. I’ll use Word and ODF word processorr documents (.odt file extensions) as an example, but the points apply equally to other formats and other editors:

  1. Is the format support “in the box”, installed and configured when you do a default install?
  2. When you open the default File/Open dialog (the one you get with the Control-O shortcut, the one we all know and have been using for 20 years), do ODF files show up? In other words, does the default file mask include *.odt, or can you at least easily select ODF from the drop-down list of file formats?
  3. If you create a new document in Word, and then type Control-S to save the document, is ODF available on the list of file formats you can save to?
  4. Can an end user or administrator (no coding required) make ODF be the default format for saving documents?
  5. If you open an ODF document, and change it and then Control-S to save it, will this occur?Or will it save to some other format? Or will you get an error?
  6. Is support integrated into the Windows shell via the registry, so you can double-click on an ODF file on the desktop, in a folder or as an email attachment and it will automatically launch in Word? If you are like me, 90% of the time you are not opening a document from within Word, but you are launching Word with a file in this manner

Is there anything here I’m missing?

Let’s compare, using the above criteria, how well Word’s DOC format is treated in OpenOffice 2.0.3, and how ODF is treated in Word 2007 beta 2:

Criterion DOC Format in OpenOffice ODF Format in Word
1. Format supported in default install Yes. No. Requires a download and install of separate, unsupported Add-in.
2. File Open integration Yes. No. ODF is not listed in the default File Open dialog and doing a Control-O will not show ODF documents. However, ODF import is available in a separate menu item elsewhere in the menu system.
3. Save new document integration Yes. No. In fact no ODF save ability exists in the current version of the Add-in. There is a place holder for the ODF save operation, though it is on its own menu, and would not be shown when doing a simple Control-S to save a new document.
4. Can be made the default format Yes. No. Although other non-Microsoft formats, such as “Plain Text” can be made the default format, ODF cannot.
5. Simple round-tripping Yes. No. When an ODF document is loaded, its name is automatically changed and it is made read-only. So loading sampler.odt results in Word having a read-only version of sampler_tmp.docx. Attempting a simple Control-S to save will give an error.
6. Shell integration Yes. No.

Once again, the open source community wins. Not only is the fidelity of OpenOffice’s support for MS Office formats higher, but they provide much closer integration of these competing formats.

I’m reading many explanations and excuses for why Office’s support for ODF is the way it is. Here is a selection to ponder:

Brian Jones, a Program Manager for MS Office, said of the Add-in support:

It’s directly exposed in the UI. We’re even going to make it really easy to initially discover the download. We already need to do this for XPS and PDF, so we’ll also do it for ODF. There will be a menu item directly on the file menu that takes to you a site where you can download different interoperability formats (like PDF, XPS, and now ODF).

I guess we differ how we define “directly exposed” and “really easy”. IMHO, the easiest way to make this easy to find would be to install it with Office and put it in the normal place in the menus.

Also, in Office 2007 Beta 2, which I have in front of me, PDF and XPS are in the normal File Save and File Save As menus, not treated separately. I understand that there is a dispute with Adobe and so you are deciding to move the PDF and the competing XPS options out of the main File Save dialog, but that just proves my point. This is clearly a policy decision not a technical restriction. The fact is that PDF and XPS both work fine where they are in the File Save menu in Office 2007 beta 2.

Brian Jones again:

We already have the PDF and XPS support for Office 2007 users that unfortunately had to be separated out of the product and instead offered as a free download.

I agree that this is unfortunate. Full integration should mean it is included in the product and supported in the usual places. I’ll take your world that PDF had to be taken out for non-technical reasons. But what prevents ODF from being integrated at that level?

And Jones on Interoperability by Design:

You see a lot of folks talk about interoperability, but often they just don’t mean the same thing. From our perspective it’s something we want to build directly into the products so that it just works.

That is a reasonable goal. I like it. By this definition, will we ever see a Microsoft-sponsored effort, open source or otherwise, to make ODF so it it is built “directly into the product so that it just works”? As pointed out above, a bunch of open source developers have already given this level of support to Office formats in OpenOffice. Isn’t it embarrassing to be unable to accomplish the same task in Office 2007?

Patrick Schmid is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer who has obvious deep knowledge of Office Add-ins and customizations. He writes:

It is possible to write a custom file import/export converter for Word. This would add the file type supported by the converter to the file type lists in the Open and Save As dialogs. Unfortunately, this is not an option for the ODF translator project.

I will accept Schmid’s technical appraisal of Microsoft’s ODF Add-in, since he obviously knows far more about these API’s than I do. However, this limitation appears to me to be a chosen limitation based on how this functionality was designed. Microsoft for years has provided import/export support for other file formats, often competing file formats, and they have always put them in the normal File Open/File Save dialogs. Why the sudden change? You can’t hide behind limitations caused by choices that you choose voluntarily when other less constrained choices were available and in fact more typical.

Further:

The Open & Save As dialogs cannot be customized: There simply is no way for an add-in to add another file format to the file type list in those dialogs. I checked this with the Office beta team just to be sure.

There is no way to do this? When the Open Document Foundation responded to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s RFI requesting info about the feasibility of an ODF Plugin, their response included screen shots of what appears to be the File Open/File Save dialogs in MS Office allowing the read and write of ODF files, side by side with the built-in formats like DOC. I hope this will not prove to be another embarrassment, where open source developers accomplish another task which Microsoft says is impossible.

Schmid further writes:

Why should MS waste resources on providing one particular feature for add-in developers that most Office add-in developers (all not affiliated with Microsoft) would put at the very bottom of their wish list?

Keep in mind that a single ODF Add-in could satisfy millions of customers. So we shouldn’t count the value by the number of add-ins which could be written, but by the number of end-users who would use the add-in.

Stay tuned. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this issue. In particular I’d like to hear more about this Open Document Foundation Plugin, and the closer integration they illustrated in their RFI response.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Anonymous 2006/07/28, 18:05

    I really think this will come back to bite Microsoft in the ass. They could have embraced (err, bad choice of words) supported OpenDocument from the beginning and maintained their role as the #1 office suite.

    Instead, this FUD about OpenDocument isn’t working with governments, and the governments will switch to an office suite that provides OpenDocument support. This will cascade down to the general public, who will get the vague notion that Microsoft doesn’t care about the format that people use when communicating with governments and open-minded people.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this add-in only works with Office 07. If that’s the case, Microsoft is alienating their user-base who cannot or will not upgrade. The only alternative for those people is to switch away from Microsoft and to another office suite.

    All in all, this seems very short-sighted of MS.

  • Anonymous 2006/08/02, 07:08

    FWLIW, I’ve tried installing MS Office 2007 on my MS Win2k box. No dice. What fun.

Leave a Comment