ODF group a year old, but format still unproven

More work needed to do to increase the adoption of alternatives to Microsoft's Office

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the ODF Alliance, an international group of organizations dedicated to promoting Open Document format for XML (ODF) as an international standard for document formats. But while the group has encouraged public agencies across the world to enact policies to support open IT standards over the last year, ODF supporters have more work to do to increase the adoption of alternatives to Microsoft's Office suite, industry watchers said.

In the past year, the alliance -- which counts IBM and Sun Microsystems as members -- has helped ODF gain momentum in government agencies across the world and even in the U.S., which has been traditionally resistant to replacing Microsoft software with open alternatives.

The latest win for the technology was on Tuesday when Oregon legislators joined government officials in Texas, California and Minnesota in proposing bills that would make it mandatory for the state's government agencies to base their technologies on open standards such as ODF.

Also in the past year, the national governments of Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway have recommended ODF or open standards for government documents such as legislation and policy statements, and several regional governments have also said they are eyeing the standard for use as the default file format for documents, said Marino Marcich, the ODF Alliance's executive director.

While the alliance has been a strong promoter of ODF and thus a catalyst for much of this support, another event has paved the way for broader adoption of ODF: its approval last May as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization. Microsoft's rival Open XML format -- the default in Office 2007 -- is currently awaiting standardization from the same group.

However, while governments seem more willing to embrace ODF as a standard, it's still not winning the hearts of the business sector, where Microsoft Office is deeply entrenched, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk. It's these customers that must be won over for ODF-based alternatives to Office -- such as Sun's StarOffice and IBM's Workplace suites -- to succeed.

"Amid governments -- particularly those abroad -- uptake and interest [in ODF] has been a steady drumbeat," he said. "Enterprises, on the other hand, have proven harder to convince."

The ODF Alliance's Marcich said that his group's work in focused on government adoption, and will continue to remain there for the immediate future. However, he acknowledged that adoption by the private sector is key to the success of the standard and office suites that support it. "ODF has to get into the corporate workflow, not just in governments," he said.

Marcich also said a focus of the ODF Alliance in its second year will be to encourage governments to move from just setting policies around ODF and other open standards to actual implementations of the technology.

"It's one thing to identify a standard and direct it for use, but [adopting a new format] is not a matter of turning a light switch on and off," he said. "That's another challenge over the long term."

Another challenge for ODF proponents is that support for ODF does not mean support for office suites built on the standard, RedMonk's O'Grady said. This is particularly true now that Microsoft has said it is funding the development of a plug-in that will allow Office -- which does not natively support ODF -- to read and write to the standard. It is up to the individual vendors such as Sun and IBM who are creating alternatives to Office to make their products compelling enough for a switch, O'Grady said.

"Whether or not ODF can enable Office competitors to take the next step and actually threaten the flagship product will depend on the products themselves," he said.

The ODF Alliance, which had 36 member organizations at its launch, now includes more than 370 members from 51 countries. More information can be found on the group's Web site.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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