Does the Open Document Format still matter?

One of the core topics of this blog -at least one of the main reasons it came to existence- was open standards: their benefits, their advantages, and their value as a fundamental component for digital innovation and ultimately software freedom. This is still the case of course, but today I will try to show how one open standard in particular, ODF, has failed in its approach until now and could very well make a remarkable comeback.

This is not to say that ODF is a bad idea or that it is not a good standard; it is all this and much more. However I have realized with the hindsight of several years since it became an official ISO standard that the expectations about its adoption and its development have been defined the wrong way. Hence the title of this post.

ODF-logoFew people know that the inception of ODF took place at the European Commission, when someone gathered a few consultants as well as a few employees of Sun Microsystems and other vendors, and told them that in order to get rid of a locked down market for office suites, they had to design a truly advanced format that would be submitte to ISO. The theory was that once there was a standard then the entire industry and the users themselves would feel confident using it, therefore bringing a level-playing field to the market. I was one of the people who actually bought into this theory and expressed it many times on this blog. After all, there had been many precedents, so the theory has some strong credibility even today. I now think ODF had and still has a tremendous value, but I also believe we had it backwards. Why? I think that experience is showing that in the present case, what works isn’t the availability of one standard leading to the development of an ecosystem. What works is a combination of factors that are rather independent from ODF but are strongly related to its implementation.

A well-established and indenpendant open source project with a real, multi-tiered ecosystem
I’m obviously referring to LibreOffice here; but it’s not like there wasn’t real momentum in the days of the old project. LibreOffice, however, brought two new benefits to the mix: a true independance from vendors which had not been acheived before and real progress on the development of the codebase. After the first two years of life of the LibreOffice project, results started to show, and the ecosystem around started to grow with LibreOffice. The ecosystem itself is growing both in size and the diversity. It is possible to find service providers of several kinds and combine them in order to have the full scope of service for a migration: migration experts, developers, support providers and trainers.

The fallback on Microsoft Office
Many people were highly skeptical when Redmond announced their support of ODF inside Microsoft Office; but starting with Microsoft Office 2010 the native implementation was one of quality, despite implementation differences with its Free Software competitors. Then it was feared that this ODF support would actually slow down migrations to and LibreOffice. It is not clear whether it did, but I actually happen to think that organizations considering a migration away from Microsoft Office felt more comfortable moving forward into these migrations knowing that MS Office would still be ODF capable. How much of this reverse psychology was foreseen by anyone having a take in this game is still something I’m unclear about.

You’re not alone anymore
The truth is, for many years a few pundits and experts could pull names of more or less prestigious entities that had migrated to and LibreOffice. Some of these names were public and were circulated ad nauseam. But more names started to appear on the list, and with these names, others felt LibreOffice deployments were no longer extraordinary. Migrations started to happen here and there, and soon entire regional and national governments decided to use LibreOffice. You no longer have these two, or perhaps three examples you can quote; there are much more and this creates a momentum. In other words, “people start to talk”.

In thidove-logo-2012s broad picture ODF matters little; it is not out of the equation of course, but my point is that the market still thinks in terms of solutions, services and products. It does not seem to base buying decisions on standards. Even if the development of ODF had been more active -it has recently become so, thanks to Jos van den Oever, the new chair of the OASIS ODF Technical Committee- it would have mattered little. The benefits of ODF are real, but to most CIOs they are not a reality unless translated into an actual solution, product or service they can consider relying on. In a sense, it feels like answering the vendor lock-in problem with an open standard as a file format is worse than no vendor lock-in: the CIO wants something actionnable.

The future, fortunately, looks good for ODF. In fact, it has never look better than today. ODF has stopped being the supposed foundation on which an entire ecosystem might soar and has now become the actual solution to several problems once the migration to LibreOffice has been achieved. Some of these problems are about documents archival and reuse; some others may be about simple or complex round trip interoperability. If, however, the recent momentum on the development of ODF continues, ODF will be able to expand and support the featureset of software like LibreOffice and be reused in innovative ways in content management systems and social networks through metadata and version management.

In 2006, ODF was defined as the driver for open source adoption and the golden solution to the “Office entanglement” problem. It never really did perform such roles mostly because the circumstances and time were not allowing ODF to fulfill its potential. In 2015, the landscape has changed in many ways; ODF can now be all it was meant to be by its authors through solid tools such as LibreOffice, active development and a vibrant ecosystem.

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