Consulting firm: Open XML trumps ODF in document format war

Burton Group report recommends Open XML adoption, sees only 'minor role' for ODF

The OpenDocument Format (ODF) remains "more of an anti-Microsoft political statement than an objective technology selection" by users, according to a report released Monday by analysts at Burton Group, who recommend that companies adopt Microsoft's Office Open XML document format whether or not it is approved as an ISO standard next month.

Burton Group said that the report was neither commissioned nor paid for by Microsoft. However, Burton analyst Peter O'Kelly, one of the report's co-authors, is scheduled to make a presentation at an Open XML press briefing that Microsoft plans to hold in the Seattle area on Wednesday. Also speaking will be multiple Microsoft executives involved in the Open XML standards-ratification effort.

In their report, O'Kelly and fellow analyst Guy Creese predicted that Open XML "will be more pervasive" among users than ODF will be. The latter format -- officially known as the Open Document Format for Office Applications -- will remain viable but "in a minor role," Creese and O'Kelly wrote.

The two analysts cited several reasons to back up their contentions:

-- Other than in "simple scenarios," they said, Open XML beats ODF in terms of compatibility with prior Office document formats. "This may be an inconvenient truth for Microsoft competitors, but it will remain so unless Sun [Microsystems Inc.] and other ODF supporters revise ODF to include full Office file format compatibility."

-- "Much to the chagrin of Microsoft competitors," Creese and O'Kelly wrote, "Microsoft appears to be sincere in its efforts to make [Open XML] a meaningful and global industry standard." Open XML already has been accepted by the Ecma International standards body, which Monday published a 2,300-page document addressing complaints and suggestions about the format from members of Geneva-based International Standards Organization. The latter group in September narrowly rejected an attempt by Ecma to win fast-track ISO standard approval for Open XML.

-- Open XML is "more complex than ODF, but it's not unnecessarily complex for the contexts it was designed to address," according to the Burton analysts. Moreover, they claimed that only "a very small percentage of application developers" will need to fully master Open XML, just as "few" developers have mastered all aspects of formats such as PostScript or PDF.

-- Creese and O'Kelly wrote that although ODF is "a clean and useful design, [it] addresses only a subset of what most organizations do with productivity applications today." They added that ODF's evolution "will likely be slow and complex, in part because of the fact that Openoffice.org, the primary implementation of ODF, is arguably still, in some respects, controlled by Sun Microsystems."

-- ODF proponents contend that OpenOffice.org and other alternatives to Office will win in budget-constrained environments, such as governments or schools in poorer countries. But Creese and O'Kelly countered that success is "not a forgone conclusion for ODF" because of Microsoft's cut-rate Office pricing for those customers, such as its US$3 Student Innovation Suite.

Marino Marcich, executive director of the ODF Alliance, retorted via e-mail that many users are taking "a buyer-beware attitude" toward Open XML because that format "is not interoperable and will tie them to the upgrade path of a single vendor."

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