OpenDocument and biblical studies


Since the commonwealth of Massachusetts has decided in September 2005 to use OpenDocument as the standard format for office applications, text documents, spreadsheets, charts and graphical documents like drawings and presentations, a heavy discussion on file formats, openness and freedom of choice arose among IT specialists.

Most notably Microsoft polemized against this decision and proposed the future XML based file format of its Office Suite as alternative. However, the decision of the Massachusetts commonwealth didn’t have the intent to exclude Microsoft software from public offices, but to open competition by stipulating an open and independent file format. It even gave software providers like Microsoft a deadline until 2007 to adopt their software to this open standard.

While based on the XML file format of Sun’s and StarOffice, OpenDocument is the effort of a technical committee of the international consortium OASIS in which specialists from several companies like Adobe, Corel, IBM, Novell and Sun as well as academic organizations and free software projects like KOffice participated. Meanwhile OpenDocument is supported by several Office applications and on its way to become ISO standard ISO/IEC DIS 26300, i. e. something like the DIN A4 for office files.

Instead of participating in the development of OpenDocument Microsoft’s reaction was to develop a new file format for the next generation of Microsoft Office based on the same technical principals as OpenDocument, i. e. a zipped collection of XML files, and call this format “Office Open XML”. They proposed it to another standards organization, the ECMA, not at least in order to fulfill the requirements of the European Union. Therefor the next years will decide which of these two “open” file formats will become the de facto standard for office applications in the future.

Interestingly even the Society Biblical Society (SBL) sent a specialist to the OpenDocument technical committee: Patrick Durusau. Hence Biblisches Forum was curious to ask him why SBL participated in the development of OpenDocument and which benefits OpenDocument will offer to biblical scholars.

What is your position in the SBL? And what is your role in the OASIS OpenDocument technical committee?

Patrick Durusau: Actually I am no longer with the SBL. I was the Director of Research and Development from 2000 until May of 2005. I am now with a software company in Colorado, even though I am still residing in Covington, Georgia.

I have been a member of the OpenDocument technical committee from its beginning and have recently become chair of the newly formed Metadata subcomittee that is working on material that will appear in the OpenDocument standard next year.

I was recently appointed as the Project Editor for the version of OpenDocument that has been approved as an ISO/IEC international standard. The Project Editor is responsible for producing the final version of the standard that will be published by ISO/IEC.

Why did SBL participate in the development of the OASIS OpenDocument format?

Patrick Durusau: The SBL participated in the formation of and subsequent work by the OpenDocument TC to bring the voice of an academic organization to the development of office software that would be used in the academic community.

It is too late to complain that some feature needed by academics is absent from software years after standards have been written and software produced based on those standards. The time to bring the concerns of the academic community forward is during the drafting of standards for software such as OpenDocument.

What features of the new document format where specially important for SBL?

Patrick Durusau: Biblical scholars have careers spanning decades and too much research has been lost or made difficult to access by ever changing proprietary formats. OpenDocument is an open XML based format that provides a means to avoid loss of prior work due to changes in software and its formats.

By way of explanation, an open XML format means that files produced according to the OpenDocument standard remain readable with standard XML tools. That is to say that even if all the software that currently reads and write OpenDocument files, such as OpenOffice, StarOffice and a host of others, suddenly winked out of existence tomorrow, the OpenDocument files they produced would still be readable with standard XML tools. And will remain readable, next year, in the next decade, or even a hundred years from now or more.

That continued readability is not an aspect of OpenDocument but of the XML standard upon which it is based. OpenDocument provides a format that supports the most commonly used features of office software.

Are there features of OpenDocument that are based on proposals from SBL?

Patrick Durusau: Yes, the SBL proposed the expansion of the metadata features of the original OpenDocument submission to allow for multiple authors, an increasingly common aspect of academic papers and to allow users to create custom metadata. Custom metadata is of importance to biblical scholars as the more common metadata in office documents does not include information that scholars commonly wish to record about documents, such as transcriptions and translations.

What are the benefits of OpenDocument for biblical scholars?

Patrick Durusau: The primary benefit, aside from the availability of free software supporting OpenDocument is the use of XML as the native format for OpenDocument files. More than anything, scholars are protected from the necessity of migrating their files as software changes. Considering the written output of scholars in terms of articles, books and class notes, among other things, who has time to migrate all those files?

What are the advantages and disadvantages in comparison to “Office Open XML” format of Microsoft Office 2007?

Patrick Durusau: That is a difficult question to answer. First, “Office Open XML” was only recently contributed to Ecma for standardization and remains incomplete. The latest draft is some 4,000 plus pages in length and the final version is rumored to number between 6,000 to 7,000 pages. Until OOXML is finished, it would be difficult to do an accurate comparison of the two standards.

Aside from the technical aspects of the respective standards, it should be noted that OpenDocument was developed with contributions from a variety of industry and academic groups over a period of years in an open standards process. All of that work was done in an open process that was visible to anyone who had an interest in its development.

Ecma is a respected industry based standards group with a long history. While drafts of OOXML are being released, it should be noted that the work in that organization lacks any public mailing list for discussion of the work on this standard. It should also be noted that if the standard is completed by late this year, it will have taken only a year to produce a standard of 6,000–7,000 pages. One has to wonder how much any organization could effectively contribute to such a standard other than its sponsor.

The other question that only time will answer is whether OOXML will be so complex and lengthy that it will have a universe of adopters of 1. By contrast OpenDocument has been adopted by a number of groups other than Sun, where it originated, such as IBM, other vendors as well as open source software projects.

I understand that work is underway on the production of an OpenDocument application that works with current MS Office software that will enable users to use OpenDocument as a transfer format between different version of MS Office software.

Originally published as an article in “Biblisches Forum”:
A copy is available at the Internet Archive.

Kategorien Biblische Exegese, Offene Standards