Walter Ditch on XML-based Office Document Standards

Historically, standardisation of the office document formats we use in our everyday working environment has been achieved through the widespread adoption of products from a very small number of suppliers. Initially this was helpful as it meant that a kind of de facto interoperability was achieved, but it has also created a form of vendor lock-in, which requires users to have purchased a particular brand of software product in order to be able to undertake everyday office tasks.

This use of de facto, proprietary standards has become increasingly unacceptable, especially within the public sector, where information has to be provided to members of the public without requiring them to have bought software from a particular vendor. Policy moves from within the EU and elsewhere are driving the use of open standards to encourage open and inclusive document exchange.

With current trends in office document file formats showing a strong move towards open, standards-based XML formats and away from closed solutions, and with major government and corporate software contracts increasingly demanding compatibility with open standards (many of which are based on the ubiquitous XML), competing software vendors have understandably been keen to have their own preferred office file formats endorsed as open standards. Recent developments related to standards approvals have at times shown something of an undignified rush to the standards ‘finish line’, with interested parties promoting acceptance of their own solutions, while being directly or indirectly hostile to competing proposals.

Developments related to modifiable office document file formats are at a crucial stage. The ISO 26300: 2006 OpenDocument Format for Office Applications (ODF) is being challenged by Ecma-376: Office Open XML (OOXML). At the present time, the OOXML format is progressing through the ISO/IEC’s six-month fast track approval process, and, if approved, would result in the existence of two ISO standards—a matter that has caused considerable controversy.

This report discusses the above developments and the issues raised, provides a brief comparison of the main technical advantages and disadvantages of ODF and OOXML and analyses the possible outcomes of the standards approval process and their significance to education. The report also includes mention of Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) which, although not an XML-based office format, is the most widely used format for documents that are uploaded to the Web. This makes it an important feature of the office document landscape, especially where the electronic provision of non-revisable documents to the general public is concerned.

The report proposes that although the UK higher education sector has, for a long time, understood the interoperability benefits of open standards, it has been slow to translate this into easily understandable guidelines for implementation at the level of everyday applications such as office document formats. As far as higher education is concerned, the use of office document formats has now reached a watershed. There is an urgent need for co-ordinated, strategically informed action over the next five years, if the higher education community is to facilitate a cost effective approach to the switch to XML-based office document formats.