Sunday, November 13, 2005

ODF and Microsoft

Microsoft makes some products that I use regularly. I'm a long time mac user who has recently decided to shift over to Linux. In the process of doing so, I've come across debates about ODF (Open Document Format) and the decision of the state of Massachusettes in the US to makde ODF the state-standard, as it were, for electronic distribution of documents. I think this is a big step in the right direction. While I use Microsoft products — powerpoint, excel, MS Word — regularly, I've never been happy with them. This might be a matter of taste, it might be lingering bugs in the programmes, it might be the cost of the programmes, it might be all kinds of things. My point is this: there is nothing wrong with MS products, they are just not what I want to use. My use of them came largely as a result of the fact that "everyone else" was using them. It made it easier for me to exchange files with students, open essays sent me over e-mail, distribute "overheads" (remember those? as powerpoints). I don't regret using MS products. MS Word, for example, has a pretty steep learning curve if you want to make use of more than a tiny percentage of its features. Having been through that learning curve, I find that using MS Word is both easier and more to my liking.

MS products have also become default file formats, a proprietary common denomenator, if you will, for the distribution of documents (xls, ppt, .doc). Virtually all other word processors, for example (at least the ones available for Mac and Linux — Open Office, Abiword, Appleworks, Nisus) import .doc format. ODF challenges MS Word's position as the default standard file format and, at the same time, could make the default standard file format non-proprietary. I think this is a good thing. Why?

First, despite the degree to which other word processes, spread sheets, presentation programmes import or export MS Word file formats, they don't do it perfectly. If you use a Mac, for example, you know that Appleworks does a pretty good job with straight text but if that texts gets complicated (say, you add endnotes, or changes in style), then you start to have problems. Open Office is pretty good but has troubles with embedded macros. Because ODF is open any word processor can encorporate it into its programme. Open Office has already made it, its default format. Abiword is jumping on ship and this morning I read that Wordperfect will adopt it, likely as an export option as opposed to a default format. What this will do is make it possible for people to use any word processor they like, save their file as ODT (open doc text) and any other word processor can open it. This expands choice for people in word processing. One will not need to keep a copy of MS Word around just to open the odd sticky file.

Second, ODF will be available for software developers to use for free. Once implements, this means that anyone can use one of the office packages out there. Microsoft has made a lot of offers lowering the costs of their programmes for students, faculty, etc. But, MS Office is still an expensive programme if you need to buy it. And, its also pretty darned expensive to upgrade once you haveit installed. I'm not going to say that Open Office is the best office suit under the sun, but it is good — my bet is that it will easily handle most people's needs — and its available for windows and Linux users. Star Office is available for those using Solaris, Linux, and windows, for free if you are using it for home use or for education. Abiword is multiplatform (runs on just about everything include QNX, Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and older versions even on BeOS). NeoOffice is a Mac OS X native version of Open Office. If ODF becomes transparent and integrated into all of these programmes, the need for MS products is lowered. A student working on a Windows machine in a computer lab can send her essay to me, using Linux, in my office. Or, I can read it at home on the Mac box my kids use. ODF stands to make a range of low or no cost produycts available for everyday use.

Finally, I like the idea that it will be transparent. A file made on one programme will be native in another. This will just have to improve communication.

I'm not trying to shoot down MS products. I've used them for years and I will concede that, at one point in time in the not-too-distant past MS made the best products out there for Macs (powerpoint was the best presentation programme and may still be for Mac, Outlook Express was the best e-mail client, IE was the best web browser). Rather than being anti-MS, there are other reasons we should all like to see the development and implmentation of ODF. I've used text processing as an example, but the same thing will go for spread sheets, presentations. The development of ODF is a step in the right direction.
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