A quick round of MS bashing

I read yesterday on Doug Mahugh’s blog about the new support for ODF in Word 2007. I was excited and pleased about this and eager to see what it would mean for programs such as Peter Sefton’s ICE. Then I saw the view of the Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, who said:

“Support for ODF indicates there are problems with OpenXML that Microsoft cannot resolve easily and quickly.”

Similarly, Peter M-R received a fair amount of criticism when he supported OOXML. I can’t tell you how dispirited this made me. I was thinking of all the positives – people could use all the functionality of ICE and other technology developed against the ODT specification without having to use OpenOffice or similar. Because that is the problem. I have spent far more hours that I would like under the bonnet of both ODT and DOCX documents as part of the SPECTRa-T project. Both are horrible. It is not their fault, (or not entirely) some of the horridness is because they choose to do things one way (and I would have chosen the opposite) and support for legacy items and unicode characters and so on …

The thing is, I was able to get DOCX documents, all I had to do was ask people to send me a copy of their word file. I had to hunt long and hard before I could lay my hands on a ODT file because nobody was using anything that created one. And I work in an office full of people who spend most of their day using computers and writing programs. Do the users care that ODT is better (allegedly) that OOXML? Do they know? Are the users simply using the document creation software that is easiest to use and fundamentally works – I would say yes. There is nothing stopping me downloading OpenOffice now and using it. But there is also nothing making me do so. Why in gods name would I? What can I do with it that I can’t do with MS Word and can I do any of those things more easily?

I suspect that the reason that Office 2007 has not been welcomed with open arms is because people can no longer use it as easily as they used to be able to. Or at least not at first – that ribbon does hide things pretty effectively as well as taking up all that expensive screen real estate – but eventually you learn your way around.

I have been working in the text/data extraction realm for a while now and Word files used to be a dead end, then along came OOXML and suddenly I had a whole new area to work in. All this time ODT has been hanging around being open and accessible and I could data mine it – except that there wasn’t any of it. So now Microsoft are going to add ODT support to Word – this means that users can now use a decent authoring tool and people can get the results in ODT. Maybe this means that we should start caring about ODT but until I see evidence of people using it (and an appreciable fraction of the published documents being in the format) I will continue to concentrate on OOXML and other products that people actually use.


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