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Looking for document interchange? Then watch out for those MS converters
Friday, May 25 2007 @ 01:02 PM EDT

Here's something interesting from Stephen Shankland, news that Sun Microsystems and RedFlag Chinese 2000 Software, a subsidiary of the Chinese Academy of Science, will work together to tailor for the Chinese market. RedFlag has a variation of OOo called RedOffice.

You'll recall that Sun recently asked China to merge its Uniform Office Format with ODF. Microsoft later worked out a deal to create a translator between its competing OpenXML and UOF. But I think there is a difference between merging two formats and creating a translator. For one thing the Microsoft translators don't always work so well.

Rob Weir has some screenshots showing how the Microsoft translator for ODF works in Microsoft Word, and it's scary bad.

First of all, because it's a converter and not part of what Word natively understands, you can't open an ODF document from the Open file. It is its own separate menu listing, which has endless annoying consequences, it turns out. You can't just double click on an ODF document, for example, and have it open in Word. You must choose the isolated and separate menu item just for ODF, and choose Open ODF. And Weir lists 12 things you normally expect to do with a document in Word that you can't do with an ODF document, like password protect it, post it to a SharePoint server or a web folder, set ODF as your default file format, send it by email and have the recipient click on it to open it. Take a look at the full list, and your jaw will drop. Here's the warning you get while your document is being converted from ODF, listing all the elements you might lose during conversion:

Weir explains what happens next:

No option is given for disabling the above message from displaying. It should be noted that when converting from a legacy binary document to OOXML, Word gives a similar conversion warning dialog, but their version can be disabled by checking a "Do not ask me again" dialog.

Once loaded, the user will find that their document is no longer an ODF document. It has been automatically converted to a read-only OOXML DOCX file as the title bar reveals:

So any future operations the user performs on the document, such as mailing, saving, posting to a web server, etc., will be in OOXML format. The only way to get back to an ODF format file is to manually and explicitly go back to the Office menu, go to the ODF submenu and choose to save it to ODF format. At that point you will be presented a default name based on the DOCX temp file name, not the original name. In this case, it suggested “sampler_tmp1.odt”.

The “Save as ODF...” dialog will default to the directory last used to save a file, not necessarily the same as where your document was loaded from. So to save you must first navigate to your original document, select it and choose “yes” when warned about overwriting an existing document, and then the document is converted back into ODF format.

If you do further work on the document in Word, in that same session, and then want to save again, you must avoid the natural tendency to do a Control-S or to save the document when prompted when exiting Word. These methods all will lead to a Save As dialog, suggesting an OOXML format, which will prompt you to rename the document since it is read-only. But it will not offer you the choice of saving to ODF format. The only way to ensure that you are saving to ODF format is to use the above steps, going back to the ODF menu, etc.

You cannot create a new ODF document from scratch in Word. If you try to create a new document and save it to ODF format, you will get an error message, telling you that you must first save the document. You must save the document before you can save it? Yes, you must first save it to a temp file in a natively-supported format like DOC before you can save it as ODF.

That's how complicated it is if you access the file when you are already in Word. What if someone sends you a document in an email, asking you to edit it and send it back? There are six, count them, six unfriendly steps to do the job that Weir lists, whereas if it were an OOXML document, there are only three, double click on the attachment, edit, use send/email option in Word to send it back. In contrast, here's what you have to do if it's an ODF document:

1. Manually detach and save [to] your hard drive the ODF document from the email, since you will not be able to launch it directly into Word from your email client. Remember where you detached the document.

2. Manually launch Word, since you will not to get Word to launch by clicking on the ODF document you just detached.

3. From the ODF menu, choose to open the ODF document. Navigate to where you detached the emailed document and select it. Around 30 seconds later the document will be automatically converted to an read-only temporary OOXML document.

4. Make your editing changes.

5. Export the document back to ODF format using the ODF menu, either writing over the original file you extracted from the email, or to a new temporary file. Remember where you exported the ODF document to.

6. Go back to your email application and attach the ODF document.

Shocking, isn't it? Who would use the ODF converter if they could avoid it? That wouldn't be the plan, would it? And of course many users will conclude that it's ODF that is "too hard" to use, whereas it's actually the converter making it unnecessarily hard. And that's not the only problem with converters. For example, here's the latest on the Microsoft Office Open XML File Format Converter for the Mac, whose users have been patiently waiting for it to arrive for months:

Beta release #1 of the Microsoft Office Open XML File Format Converter for Mac is now available for download. This is a stand-alone Macintosh application that converts .docx documents - that is, documents saved by Word 2007 for Windows in the Office Open XML file format - into rich text format (RTF) documents so that they can be automatically opened in either Word 2004 or Word v.X for Mac OS X.

With this free converter we passionately want to get you up and reading the new documents you are receiving. We do not, however, want to see you inadvertently mess up any critical documents you are working with. For that reason, only one-way (read only) conversion is supported in this beta. When sending documents back to colleagues and contacts, we recommend saving to the default .doc format from Mac Word (listed as "Word document" in the save dialog). Similarly, we continue to recommend that you advise friends and colleagues who use Office 2007 and collaborate regularly with Mac users to save their documents as a "Word/Excel/PowerPoint 97-2003 Document" (.doc, .xls, .ppt) to ensure that the files can be robustly shared across platforms while waiting for final availability of Office 2008 for Mac.

What good is a one-way translator?

If all you can do is read, then of course you have to save everything in Microsoft's formats "to ensure that files can be robustly shared across platforms" ... um, which platforms? Only Microsoft platforms? Linux exists. ODF exists. To half-translate and force people to use your formats to save a document is not good enough, if your goal is openness and ease of interoperability and longterm accessibility. If you are a government, how will you open those documents you saved in a proprietary format in fifty years, if Microsoft is no longer around? Isn't longterm storage an important goal of governments? If so, do you see the problem with converters?

Now, Microsoft will probably say that they'll improve the converters as soon as they can. But a converter will always be a converter. Why won't Microsoft just work with ODF, already an international standard, so we have one standard that can do everything for everyone? Let's face it. An external converter which is released on Microsoft's timetable, in the case of Mac users only after long months, isn't good enough for a standard, I don't think, because it keeps you dependent on one proprietary vendor, and one who so far isn't famous for openness. So how useful is a translator like that?

Unless you are Microsoft, of course. Then it's perfect. What could be better than a translator that keeps everyone inside the Microsoft universe?

But the whole point of XML is to be able to freely interchange documents, read, write and save, in any operating system. Keeping the goal clearly in mind helps to understand why some offerings are better than others.

Even if in the past an all-Microsoft solution might have made some pragmatic sense, it surely doesn't now. How will you interchange documents with China, since the country backs Linux and they surely will increasingly be sending you documents in formats that Microsoft doesn't handle so well? Yes, you'll have the ability to open older Microsoft documents, and that is important, but most of your business will involve current documents, isn't that so?

I mention all this because the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) is seeking comments on a proposal to adopt Office Open XML (Open XML) as an international open standard, based on what I believe is the mistaken idea that it will enable document sharing across platforms:

More and more organizations around the world are interested in achieving document processing interoperability, and creating digital archives using open formats. Office Open XML provides a common open standard for word-processing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets that can be freely implemented across multiple applications and platforms.

Does it? Which platforms? Which users? They might need to think about those Mac users, struggling to deal with documents they can only read but must save in a proprietary Microsoft format that not all Mac users even have.

I own a Mac laptop, and the first thing I did was remove all Microsoft products. I just didn't want any Microsoft software on my laptop for security reasons. If someone were to send me a Microsoft Office 2007 document and I was on my laptop, traveling for example, and I needed to save the document, what in the world would I do? Think about that situation, Canada, and you'll see the problem.

And may I ask, if we have two competing international standards for the same thing, how will you synchronize them? Wouldn't you have to, if interoperability is the goal? But with these converters, Microsoft retains the ability to always be the first and the best by just delaying release for certain operating system users and making sure the converter doesn't actually work as well. Not that they'd do that deliberately, cough cough. But what if they did? Where's your protection? Isn't the whole point of a standard that everyone gets to use it equally and fairly?

If you are talking about everyone being able to share documents, you need a format that people who don't use Microsoft products can also use, at the same level of functionality as everyone who does use Microsoft products. That means no downloading of external translators that the user must install himself. And it means that you are able to read, write, edit, and save everything natively.

There are a lot of us who don't use Microsoft products. I think there will be many more, and not just in China. Of course, for some folks who use Microsoft exclusively and have no friends, relatives, or business associates who use anything else, this might not matter. For them, access to old versions of Microsoft Word may be all they need. But that isn't interoperability for all operating systems by a mile. Individuals are free to choose to use whatever they like using. But what about governments? Shouldn't they care about everyone, Linux and Mac users too?

The goal is to make document interchange easy for everyone, not just Microsoft customers, I would assume, and to ensure longterm availability of documents. Can Microsoft do that for you with OpenXML converters? The only honest answer I can give you so far appears to be, no. And as long as that is the case, does OpenXML qualify as an international standard?

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