As the Document Freedom Day is approaching I realized that we don’t push ODF and open standards as loudly as before. Certainly most of the battles for the mind and market share are past, at least when it comes to office file formats. But the recent public consultation of the UK government brought back some of the most crucial issues surrounding ODF and it’s useful, I think, to check where stand these days on these matters.
Shortly after OOXML had been given the ISO label in the weirdrest and most outrageous way, a representative from Microsoft spoke at an IT conference in Brussels and bluntly declared “ODF has won”. Well, it is true in the sense that the OOXML standardization process had highlighted the -probably terminal- inability of the ISO to tackle IT standards and transparency in an effective way. In this sense indeed, ODF had won the “moral” battle. On the other hand, Microsoft had reached its main goal: to get the ISO’s stamp of approval on the half-baked OOXML specification. What it never achieved however, was the actual mass adoption of OOXML by the users of Microsoft Office and beyond. What’s that you say? OOXML has not reached mass adoption? Well, the actual specification, the standard, has not actually been implemented as the default file format until MS Office 2013, and yet, as an odd, end of the list option called “OOXML – strict”; OOXML – Transitional being a rubberstamp for every undocumented and unpublished sub-spec and binary blob necessary for Microsoft Office’s secret sauce to work its magic.
Of course, it is sad, yet true, to notitce that the mass adoption of ODF has failed until now, and that most companies and government use Microsoft file formats (xml based or not) as their default format. This alone would be enough to claim we haven’t moved an inch closer to true document freedom. At the same time, the IT and the way we use software and data has changed in 5-6 years.
More and more data
Data, big and small has become the new black. It’s all about data these days, and yet amidst all of it, the world does not seem to care a lot about digital documents. Any true reality check would have anyone notice that office suites are used everywhere, not less, not more, but in addition to any online collaborative, social and multi-device service and platform outt here. But most of this data is not wrapped in an office document format though: the office document is an aging, yet useful metaphor that is currently not explored too much. In this sense, the mission statement of OOXML goes against the wind: a standard to represent and encapsulate the information and its representation contained in proprietary documents is not a solution. It’s one more layer of complexity: better open up all the specs of the former proprietary file formats instead!
No growth in the ODF ecosystem
Like it or not, there has not been that much investment in the ODF ecosystem. Of course, work on the further development of the ODF specification has continued at the OASIS Consortium. But that alone is not enough. Once you have about 4 office suites implementing ODF in an good or excellent fashion, you need tools, and you need middleware. I know a few tools, some of which my former company, Ars Aperta, has contributed to, but you also need middleware such as content management systems, specific application servers, data busses, etc. to implement and support ODF. Beyond that, you need good mobile support for ODF. To this day, this has not happened yet. Although I know of serious attempts, this is just not available and won’t be, I guess, until the Document Foundation releases its own ODF viewever for Android and iOS, which is thankfully actively developed. Once you have all this, entities migrating to suites like LibreOffice need to have an actual document exchange policy that takes into account exchanges inside the organization and outside of it. Most of the migrations I know of do not integrate this and as a result I have heard of successful migrations to LibreOffice with no or only partial document migration to ODF. In a nutshell, ODF is no icebreaker. It is an asset, it is an opportunity and a great standard for office file formats, keeping your data safe, accessible for edition, consultation and archival. This alone is a major advantage. But what was seen as the strategic weapon against Microsoft dominance on the market seems to have failed.
Reasons to hope and fight for
In all this rather grim description, one can wonder why we even have a Document Freedom Day at all. It is perhaps important to realize, first of all, that this is not a grim picture. The very fact that the ODF ecosystem stands the way it does today and has survived until today in the face of aversity and corporate friction (monopolistic practices, poor procurement policies, Sun’s acquisition by Oracle, etc.) is the living proof of the ODF’s ecosystem resilience and strength. Second, ODF is being adopted in many places around the globe, and it works. The Brazilian Government, entire parts of the German public sector including the famous migration of the City of Munich, the French Gendarmerie, the Portuguese and Italian Governments and other public sector agencies all around Europe, as well as small and large companies here and there do use ODF. You can send letters in ODF to most of the European public sector including the European Institutions and they will be read and handled just like .doc or .docx formats. What this means is that while ODF may not have won over proprietary formats we now have a growing place and use for opens standards like ODF. And as the current IT trends towards the reuse and digitization of cultural and public data go, the open data movement as well as major projects such as the Preforma FP7 project are true opportunities for growth, change, software and document freedom.
Last but not least, the advent of the LibreOffice project is probably one of the best news for the advancement of ODF. Because it was succesful in getting rid of the corporate overlords dominating the old OpenOffice.org project, LibreOffice managed to set up an increadibly fast growing project and community that managed to develop innovative features that ultimately benefited ODF and software freedom as a whole. But we cannot stop there.
Software Freedom matters, today perhaps more than ever. We need to regain control of our software, of our data, where it goes, what it says about us, whether we will be able to use this data in 30 years from now and what we can do with it today. We need Software Freedom and we need Document Freedom. Let’s fight for them.