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There is discussion going on about the State of Massachusetts in the USA proposing to mandate the OpenDocument format for Government documents.

Simon Phipps of Sun has some useful links. He emphasizes that it is all about the document format not about OpenOffice.org vs Microsoft Word:

All these (and more, watch for it now I’ve mentioned it) want you to approach the discussion from the perspective this is Microsoft vs OpenOffice.org, Microsoft vs Sun, Microsoft vs Free Software - in other words, they want to frame the conversation as company competitive when it’s nothing of the sort. Massachusetts are not mandating OpenOffice.org or any other specific product.

http://blogs.sun.com/roller/page/webmink?entry=a_study_in_framing

There’s also Microsoft’s Brian Jones’ who is stunned by the move (but read the skeptics writing in the comments) and offered more that still doesn’t satisfy the skeptics.

Me, I think Massachusetts is doing the right thing, and it’s likely more Governments will follow.

But on another level I’m concerned that the technopolitics will obscure other issues with document formats. It would be easy to get the impression that switching to an open format is all you need to do.

If you want documents to be accessible and useful even in the short term you need to be able to render them to PDF, which is an option for any word processor, or HTML which no word processor can do reliably unless you constrain the way it is used.

(Another way of look at this which may make sense to the XML crowd is that using your word processor like styles is a bit like doing well-formed XML instead of using a schema .)

I’ll say that again. It doesn’t matter whether you are using MS Word, OpenOffice.org, Adobe FrameMaker, or any other general purpose WYSIWYG program, it cannot render good HTML output from arbitrary input. Take the OpenDocument format, for example, it’s available in PDF format or OpenOffice.org format (not OpenDocument). Not HTML.

This is where styles come in.

Using styles you can format a document in your word processor that will both print well and make a good web page (given software that knows about your styles), and in the process save time, ensure consistency with other documents and make re-use much easier. There’s more about this on my word processing site and there will be practical applications coming out of the ICE project.

HTML output is not the only reason to use styles either. Ad hoc use of any complex tool costs you dearly in wasted time in document creation and re-use and in the lack of consistency in materials produced.

For those of use who have been using styles in our communities of authors switching between Word and OpenOffice.org Writer (for example) is trivial - even where Writer messes up stuff imported from Word it is easy to fix programmatically because the document structure is in the styles.

For people who have not been using styles, or using styles that use particularly ‘edgy’ features in Word migration could be real headache. This works in Microsoft’s favor. Even where a government says “Use the OpenDocument format” there will be plenty of important existing material that won’t go easily.

So, whichever format you use now do yourself a favor and use styles. Feel free to share ours, which you can read about on trac.officecontent.net.


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