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Document Format FUD: A Guide for the Perplexed

I’ve decided to put together a list of misconceptions that I hear, generally on the topic of document formats. I’ll try to update this list to keep it current, with the most recent entries at the top. Readers are invited to submit the FUD they observe as comments, and I’ll include it where I can.

This inaugural edition is dedicated to the fallout from the recent supernova we know as the OpenDocument Foundation, that in one final act of self-immolation swelled from obscurity to overwhelming brilliance, but then slowly faded away, ever fainter and more erratic, little more than hot gas, the dimming embers no longer sustainable.

Q: Now that the originator and primary supporter of OpenDocument Format has ended its support for ODF, does this mean the end for the ODF standard? (18 Nov 2007)

A: This question is based on a mistaken premise, namely that the OpenDocument Foundation was the originator or steward of the ODF standard. This is an erroneous notion.

The ODF standard is owned by the OASIS standards consortium, with over 600 member organizations and individual members. The committee in OASIS that that does the technical working of maintaining the ODF standard is called the OpenDocument TC. It has 15 organization members as well as 7 individual members. Until recently the OpenDocument Foundation was a member of the ODF TC, one voice among many.

The adoption of the ODF standard is promoted by several organizations, most prominently the ODF Alliance (with over 400 organizational members in 52 countries), the OpenDocument Fellowship (around 100 individual members) and the OpenDoc Society (a new group with a Northern European focus, with around 50 organizational members). To put this in perspective, the OpenDocument Foundation, before it changed its mission and dissolved, had only 3 members.

When you consider the range of ODF adoption, especially in Europe and Asia, the strong continuing work on ODF 1.2 in OASIS, and the strong corporate, government and organizational participation demonstrated in the global ODF User Workshop recently held in Berlin, we seem to be making a disproportionate amount of noise over the hysterics of the disintegrating 3-person OpenDocument Foundation.

A number of analysts/journalists/bloggers didn’t check their facts and seem to have fallen into the trap, and ascribed a far greater importance to the actions of the Foundation. Curiously, these articles all quoted the same Microsoft Director of Corporate Standards. I hope this correlation does not prove to be a persistent contrary indicator for accuracy in future file format stories.

Luckily for us, David Berlind over at ZDNet has penetrated the confusion and gets it right:

…the future of the OpenDocument Foundation has nothing to do with the future of the OpenDocument Format. In other words, any indication by anybody that the OpenDocument Format has been vacated by its supporters is pure FUD.

11/27/2009 Update: Berlind did further research and interviews on this topic and followed up with a podcast and new blog post OpenDocument Format Community steadfast despite theatrics of now impotent ‘Foundation’ on this subject.

Q: The Open Document Foundation has a document, a “Universal Interoperability Framework” that on its title page says “Submitted to the OASIS Office Technical Committee by The OpenDocument Foundation October 16, 2007”. What is the status of this proposal in the ODF TC? (18 Nov 2007)

A: No such document has been submitted to the OASIS TC, on this date or any other date. OASIS policy states that “Contributions, as defined in the OASIS IPR Policy, shall be made by sending to the TC’s general email list either the contribution, or a notice that the contribution has been delivered to the TC’s document repository”. A look at the ODF TC’s list archive for October shows that there was no such contribution.

Q: The Foundation claims that the W3C’s CDF format has better interoperability with MS Office than ODF has. Is this true? (18 Nov 2007)

A: The Foundation’s claims have not been demonstrated, or even competently argued at a technical level that would allow expert evaluation. I cannot fully critique what is essentially vaporware. However, those who know CDF better than I do have commented on the mismatch between CDF and office documents, for example the recent interview with the W3C’s Chris Lilley in Andy Updegrove’s blog.

Q: So, does IBM then oppose CDF in favor of ODF? (18 Nov 2007)

A: No. IBM supports both the development of ODF and CDF and has a leadership role in both working groups. These are two good standards for two different things.

The W3C, over the years has produced a number of reusable, modular core standards for things like vector graphics (SVG), mathematical notation (MathML), forms (XForms), etc. To use a cooking analogy, these are like ingredients that can be combined to make a dish. ODF has taken a number of W3C standards and combined them to make a format for expressing conventional office documents, the familiar word processor, spreadsheet and presentation documents. ODF is an OASIS and ISO standard.

But just as eggs, butter and flour form the base of many recipes, the core W3C standards can be assembled in different ways for different purposes. This is a good thing.

CDF is not so much a final dish, but an intermediate step, like a roux (flour + butter) is when making a sauce. You don’t use a roux directly, but build upon it, e.g., add milk to make a béchamel, add cheese for a cheese sauce, etc., CDF itself s not directly consumable. You need to add a WICD profile, something like WICD Mobile 1.0, before you have something a user agent can process.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Jean Hollis Weber 2007/11/19, 01:51

    This blog post by Peter O’Kelly makes what I believe is a quite erroneous statement: that the Foundation was “sponsored by OASIS”.

  • Anonymous 2007/11/19, 05:08

    Makes you wonder if the whole OpenDocument Foundation wasn’t a trick in the first place. I mean, three members?

  • Rob 2007/11/19, 09:31


    Thanks, that caught my eye as well. The Foundation once was a member of OASIS, one voice among many, but OASIS in no way sponsored the Foundation. OASIS officially promotes ODF via the ODF Adoption TC and OpenDocment.xml.org.


    I have no reason to question the Foundation’s integrity. They appear to honestly believe what they say. The Foundation once had a larger membership, and supported ODF, but most of their membership quit in protest when the Foundation’s leadership turned against ODF.

  • Sam 2007/11/19, 11:06

    Three principals is about the right number of people to accomplish the goals expressed in something like the OpenDocument Foundation’s charter, which was to support other individuals and groups in their contributions — their free comings and goings — to the development of ODF specification at OASIS.

    The repetition of this small number seems to reflect a fearful interest in minimizing the Foundation’s historical contribution. There were about 27 individuals at one time listed as participants in the OASIS ODF work under the OpenDocument Foundation’s sponsorship. Lists get old and names sometimes stay up longer than they should. Actually the maximum number of participants on the OASIS ODF TCs and sub-committees at one time never exceeded about 15. And the Formula and Metadata Sub-Committees were founded and chaired initially by Foundation members.

    This blighting of the record should raise curious interest. Either the Foundation was wrong to pursue Universal Interoperability at the format level, or the absence of Universal Interoperability is a dangerous weakness that members of OASIS are afraid to look at … or fearful that outsiders should see.

    It would be interesting to see if over time any of our Interoperability proposals have been introduced — behind the scenes — to the ODF spec in traces of recognizable form. That would be validating, indeed, of the concepts for which we fought hard & well.

    So validating too is all this odd & continuing attention from the ODF Community even though the Foundation has turned in its hall-pass.

    It should all raise good questions by anyone interested in what to do next in documents, formats & software choices at their organization.

  • Rob 2007/11/19, 12:32

    @Sam, The Foundation’s previous contributions are not being questioned here. You are beating up on a strawman of your own invention.

    Also, you claim that either the Foundation was wrong to pursue interoperability, or that OASIS must be afraid of it. Are those really are only choices? What about the possibility that the Foundation’s interoperability plan was oversold as providing 100% fidelity but in fact was technically flawed and did not in offer a reasonable chance of achieving interoperability? Can we be allowed that option as well?

    But please keep on chasing “Universal Interoperability”, Sam. I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong here. Honestly.

  • orcmid 2007/11/19, 14:22

    Nice one. Was the first Q actually asked by anyone?

    I must confess that I don’t know how to calibrate the Foundation as an umbrella for individuals participating on the OASIS TC versus as a development effort (with how many of those participants) to build a translator?

    I suppose we’ll have to look elsewhere for serious experiments on what it means to have Universal Interoperability and what the caveats and limitations are with regard to “universal.”

  • Jean Hollis Weber 2007/11/19, 17:33

    I’ve read in several places (sorry, can’t find a reference at the moment) references to the Foundation being formed 5 years ago. Probably these were reporters’ errors, but I’d like to point out that the Foundation was in fact formed in November 2005, ie two (2) years ago. I have here an email from Gary Edwards to one of the OpenDocument Fellowship’s mailing lists, dated 10 Nov 2005, stating “The OpenDocument Foundation 501c(3) has been filed. It will be at least three weeks just to pass the first few hurdles, but all the paper work in process. Not much more we can do but wait.”

  • Anonymous 2007/11/20, 11:48

    Random thoughts.

    Perhaps it is worthwhile to point out that there is fundamental difference between Open Document Foundation contributing with people to ODF standardization and Open Document Foundation recruiting people already participating in the ODF standardization. It is not like the originals goals of the Foundation are any weird.

    Also it is always difficult to assert truth out of events that can not be experimentally repeated. We know that people who was members of Open Document Foundation took part of the development. Yet we can not know if others would have stepped in in their place if they had not been there.

    If the ODF development comes to a stumbling halt with these three people gone we know they were vital, if everything proceed as usual it is an open question on how important their contribution was.

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