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File format shifts have users worried

Jan 09, 20065 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMicrosoftOpenOffice

Concerns raised over the cost, training requirements involved with adopting a new standard.

As an industrywide tussle rages over standardized word-processing and spreadsheet formats, end users say the real issues are the costs of reformatting archived documents, support and training, and the possibility that multiple formats could make it difficult to share documents with customers and partners.

The issue of standardized formats is coming to a head in the face of compliance and security regulations. Last year it gained lightning-rod status when the commonwealth of Massachusetts recommended that all state documents be migrated by January 2007 to the Open Document Format for Office Applications (ODF), a standard drafted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standard. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft submitted its Office OpenXML Format to the European Computer Manufacturers Association to be made a standard and took the unusual step of saying the format would be offered with an “irrevocable covenant not to sue anyone for use of our XML format specifications.”

Things have become so contentious that Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn resigned his post effective this week, citing the commonwealth of Massachusetts recommended that he says had become “disruptive and harmful” for him personally and to those around him.

The ODF side sees its standard as an option to Microsoft’s stranglehold on productivity applications and as a way to insulate users from changes to proprietary formats. Sun with StarOffice and IBM with Workplace are two vendors that have thrown their weight behind ODF.

Microsoft officials say ODF is inferior to OpenXML and that only OpenXML provides backward compatibility with previous versions of Office, beginning with Office 2000.

Users aren’t taking sides. Rather they are inventorying the issues that would confront them if they adopt a new file format.

“The only motivation for a move would be cost to the company,” says one IT architect from a Fortune 500 company, who asked not to be named. “We have no ‘religious’ motivation and no motivation to stick it to Microsoft. On the cost front, we have to look at [total cost of ownership factors] such as license, conversion, integration, support, training, and not just cost of the client software. We also have to consider [format] compatibility with the thousands of customers, suppliers and contractors we deal with.”

The IT architect also cited the issue of training more than 150,000 users, as well as his company’s opinion that open software in general has a weak support infrastructure.

“Is it possible down the line that there is a world where organizations, one of which has StarOffice or Workplace and another that has Microsoft Office can’t share documents? That could happen,” says Stephen O’Grady, co-founder of IT analyst firm RedMonk, which has been using ODF for more than a year.

“What we would have ultimately is users getting files they cannot read,” O’Grady says. “Our experience has been seamless; [with] most of the Microsoft documents that we get and might want to convert to ODF, it is possible. What we find with many of these transformations is, the more simple the documents are in terms of formatting, the more easily they translate. We have had problems with things like nested tables.”

Those types of problems are not palatable to everyone. “When you are a law firm your whole business is the document,” says Frank Gillman, director of technology for Los Angeles law firm Allen Matkins. Gillman saw the ugly side of document incompatibility during the debacle with Office 2000, which did not fully support file formats from Office 97.

Although advocates of standard file formats bring up that hiccup as an example of the dangers of proprietary formats, Gillman says that what is important is the issue of incompatibility on any level. The Office 97/Office 2000 incompatibility forced Allen Matkins to reformat thousands of documents so that everything would be compatible with Office 2000 and up. “It cost us a small fortune,” Gillman says.

He adds that Allen Matkins has not even started to look at ODF but a planned migration to Office 12 next year – which will have OpenXML as the default file format – will force the law firm to take the issue head-on.

“We will have to look at the whole structure – how the document changes, what is open, what is not, what is relevant, and how it effects our responsibility as lawyers in terms of protecting assets,” Gillman says. The drivers of his thinking are privacy and such regulations as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

“If there was no regulation happening here, documents would be archived somewhere, the IT guy would salute the flag and no one would care,” says Chris LeTocq, an analyst with Guernsey Research. “Now, with the combination of all these regulations there is a general awareness that all this is part of the legally required documentation of an organization,” he says.

LeTocq says the issues of archiving and being able to read documents in particular formats is on people’s minds. “If you have a format that is guaranteed to change and is not open, that has become a problem” for IT, he says.the commonwealth of Massachusetts recommended