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Report from the Open Document workshop at SCALE, by Mathfox
Saturday, February 11 2006 @ 11:50 AM EST

The first day of the Southern California Linux Expo was dedicated to the Open Document Format. All of the speakers at the workshop stressed the importance of an Open Standard to achieve vendor-independence and create conditions where innovation and competition can flourish.

Peter Quinn, the former CIO of Massachusetts, opened the workshop with a summary of the events that surrounded the Massachusetts decision to standardize their document formats. The largest part of the story is familiar to the Groklaw readers, no need to repeat it here. He made it very clear that neither he (nor Massachusetts) were against Microsoft, but that he was just looking for what was best for the commonwealth.

The events in Massachusetts didn't happen in a vacuum. The "Open Standards Enterprise Technical Reference Model" is inspired by and based on Federal best practice recommendations. In the European Union there are EU-wide recommendations for Open Standards. One of the harder issues to achieve was sharing of software between states. When lawyers got involved, the process slowed significantly.

The presentation for Peter's talk, "The Policy, Planning and Pragmatic Reasons for the Massachusetts Move into Open," is available, with photos on; other talks will be posted on the Open Document Fellowship website shortly.

Douglas Heintzman (IBM) had a talk about "Unleashing information." He showed some of what could be done with interoperable components that speak and understand Open Document. One of the demonstrations was collaborative editing of the same document (over the network) in two different editors. Two people, one in Firefox and one in OO Writer were editing the same document in real time. In a similar way, calendaring information could be edited from within a spreadsheet view (an OO Calc browser component.)

This is largely made possible through the flexibility in the Open Document file formats that allow scripting of the objects (think sections, paragraphs) in the document. It is unknown what will come out of it -- thanks to the availability of Open Source code, every programmer has the possibility to experiment with the advanced features. IBM is in discussion with Sun over the conditions for release and distribution of the modifications they made to Open Office. IBM would love to take Open Office into innovative directions.

Gary Edwards spoke about the joys of interoperability, allowing programs from different vendors, running on different computers to work together. It makes "the desktop" an integral part of your information system. ODF also brings "searchability" to your documents. Xforms is a way to present database information to users; but it also allows for creation of "eBusiness" and "eGovernment" applications.

David Eisenberg showed some other techniques to extract information from Open Documents, with XML transformations and Perl and Python scripts. He also showed that it's possible to generate Open Documents from within a program (although that's somewhat harder). He's written a book (ISBN 1-4116-6832-4) about it.

[PJ: As it happens I just got the following message from Marbux: "OASIS OpenDocument Essentials, by David Eisenberg. This is a developer's bible. On paper for $20 from Lulu,, online (for free) in several formats at David Eisenberg's web site, I've spent some time with it, and I'm impressed. I understood way more than I expected to despite covering the highly technical stuff. David has a knack for explaining technical subjects." Marbux suggested we might do a book review, so if anyone feels qualified, and would like to do it, please email me.]

Susy Strubl from Sun discussed the reasons why governments, businesses and consumers can win from Open Standards; it's all about control: controlling your documents and controlling the destiny of your organization or yourself. "A connected world needs Open Standards for efficient work."

In the panel discussion several topics were raised. The speakers didn't expect commercial and proprietary software to vanish soon; but Open Document clearly poses problems to a commercial Office software developer. There were some tips for Open Source activists:

  • Make sure that what you do works.
  • Think about your presentation and presenting yourself.
  • Start with small successes and grow from there.

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