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OpenDocument News: Europe gets involved, DigiNews Summary, and Spreadsheet Formulas
Saturday, February 25 2006 @ 07:00 PM EST

Lots of interesting things are happening in the OpenDocument front. There's more details about the new anti-trust complaint in Europe against Microsoft, and reports on ODF progress on accessibility and spreadsheets, and a new OASIS committee to work to encourage adoption of ODF.

You probably saw Andy Updegrove's article "It's Now a Two Front War: The ODF Allies Launch an Offensive in Europe" when we put it in News Picks, in which he says "it would seem that [Microsoft's] opponents are mounting a significant offensive". He cites a news report in ZDNET.UK:
Of late, things have been becoming active again in Europe on this front, and this week things took a novel turn when the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) complained to the European Commission that Microsoft was guilty of violating antitrust law because it had refused to support the OpenDocument Format, among other infractions. As reported yesterday by Graeme Wearden at ZDNet.Uk.com:
"We are at a crossroads," said ECIS in a statement. "Will one dominant player be permitted to control those conditions, or will the rules that guarantee competition on the merits prevail, to the benefit of all?"

ECIS called on the EC to take action against Microsoft. It cited the software giant's refusal to use the OpenDocument standard or release details of its .doc, .xls and .ppt file formats, which prevents the makers of other productivity suites from being fully interoperable with Microsoft Office.

More details on the complaint from Hispanic Business News:

ECIS lawyer Thomas Vinje described parts of the complaint in a telephone interview. Among the group's allegations:
*Office incompatibility. Microsoft has not done enough to make Office compatible with similar offerings, such as OpenOffice and StarOffice. Its PowerPoint slide software, for example, often fails to work smoothly in non-Microsoft programs, the complaint says.

*HTML replacement. Vista uses a technology called XAML that could give Microsoft an unfair advantage in Web page image displays. Microsoft may be maneuvering XAML to become a replacement for Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, the standard software language used to create Web pages, Vinje said.

*Bundling anew. Vista will also come with Windows digital rights management (DRM) technology. DRM can be used to restrict access to business documents. Microsoft could unfairly popularize its DRM system in much the same way it came to dominate Web browsers and media players, by including it free with Windows PCs.

Meanwhile, Peter Quinn has been touring Europe, talking with various government officials about the dangers of losing Europe's cultural heritage.

OpenDoc Prescription a Bitter Pill for Microsoft in Massachusetts by Richard Entlich (Cornell University), published in RLG DigiNews (Feb. 15, 2006, Volume 10, Number 1, ISSN 1093-5371), summarizes what's been going on in OpenDocument and Massachusetts. There are a few terminology nits; he uses the term "open source format" where most would say "open format" or "open standard", and uses the term "OpenDoc" when "OpenDocument" is the usual term. But those are nits; the article has a good sweeping overview of what happened and why, and includes a wonderful chronology that summarizes the events over years. This is written from the viewpoint of those who archive and retrieve information -- without them, key information would be lost, yet their concerns are still not noted often enough in the general press.

The only areas in OpenDocument that have ever been noted as issues were accessibility for the disabled and spreadsheet formulas. To be fair, this isn't just an issue with OpenDocument; Microsoft's formats have similar issues. So let's look at how things are faring in those two areas.

First, accessibility. The Microsoft Office formats (both the binary and new XML formats) have never been reviewed or fixed for accessibility to my knowledge; typically vendors reverse engineer Microsoft Office to make it accessible, after Microsoft releases the product to market, and they don't get to fix any problems in the formats, obviously, unlike OpenDocument. Microsoft's draft XML specification doesn't define spreadsheet formulas either; it's no better than OpenDocument in this area then, I gather.

Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science and a key expert on accessibility, acknowledges that the accessibility of Office-based solutions is largely due to the "heroic" efforts of third party software developers whose software routinely breaks every time Microsoft upgrades its software because of the way that software relies on interfaces to Office and Windows, many of which are not well-documented or not documented at all. Here's what he said: "such access as we have [in Microsoft Office] relies heavily upon the unsung and heroic efforts of a handful of small companies whose software must often steal and scrape such information as they can... Moreover, whenever Microsoft decides to come out with a new version of Office or Windows, screen access technology developers and the blind community must race to keep up. If they do not, such access as we have enjoyed could evaporate literally overnight."

In contrast, OASIS has been working diligently for some time and has a group working to reach the goal of making sure that there are no accessibility issues in OpenDocument.

Another front has been opened with regards to standardizing spreadsheet formulas. Microsoft's draft XML specification doesn't define spreadsheet formulas either. OASIS has now set up a group to specify how to exchange spreadsheet formulas, filling in the last piece of the puzzle. On Feb. 6, 2006, the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee agreed to set up a formula subcommittee; you can see its charter. They've been gathering members; corporate representatives include include Sun (who support OpenOffice.org's and StarOffice's Calc), IBM (who support Lotus 1-2-3 and IBM Workplace), and Novell. Both KDE (KOffice' KSpread) and GNOME (Gnumeric) are represented, and several power users are on-board as well to represent the user community. The sentimental favorite, though, is probably Dan Bricklin, who has announced that he's interested in joining the group. Bricklin co-developed VisiCalc (the original spreadsheet program), and is currently developing the leading-edge program wikiCalc (which combines Wiki and spreadsheet capabilities). The formula group's website is already up.

The OASIS formula subcommittee has also received, as a contribution, a draft specification called "OpenFormula". OpenFormula has been in development for over a year by a group who were concerned about this gap in all office document specifications. OASIS describes the OpenFormula contribution this way (in part):

"OpenFormula is an open format for exchanging recalculated formulas between office application implementations, particularly for spreadsheets. OpenFormula defines the types, syntax, and semantics for calculated formulas, including many predefined functions and operations, so that formulas can be exchanged between applications and produce substantively equal outputs when recalculated with equal inputs. Both closed and open source software can implement OpenFormula."

OASIS hasn't decided what to do with that contribution yet, but the simple fact that it's available to OASIS suggests that the spreadsheet formula group will be able to make rapid progress.

Finally, OASIS is now forming an "OpenDocument Format Adoption TC", which is to encourage faster adoption of OpenDocument. Its stated purpose is to:

"...create awareness and demand for a new class of applications and solutions designed specifically to support and leverage OpenDocument XML. The Adoption Committee will dedicate its energy and resources to create wide scale understanding of the benefits of OpenDocument format support within organizations and governmental bodies through education and promotion. The Adoption Committee will align and support the activities of the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee by providing market-based requirements. These requirements will help guide future development of the OpenDocument specification by the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee....

Working together, members of the OASIS OpenDocument Format Adoption Committee will provide expertise and resources to educate the marketplace on the value of the OpenDocument format, increasing the demand for ODF-conforming products, and expanding the OpenDocument community of users, suppliers, and developers."

They are asking folks interested in joining to sign up, and the first meeting, a teleconference, will be on March 28. They add: "To monitor the work of this Committee without actively participating in it, you may join as an Observer." Either way, instructions are here.


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