The OpenDocument Format (ODF) remains "more of an anti-Microsoft political statement than an objective technology selection," according to the Burton Group.

The consultancy recommends that companies adopt Microsoft Office Open XML document format, whether or not it is approved as an ISO standard next month.

The Burton Group said that the report was neither commissioned nor paid for by Microsoft. However, Burton analyst Peter O'Kelly, one of the report's co-authors, was scheduled to make a presentation at an Open XML press briefing that Microsoft planned to hold in Seattle yesterday.

In their report, O'Kelly and fellow analyst Guy Creese predicted that Open XML "will be more pervasive" among users than ODF will be. The latter format - officially known as the Open Document Format for Office Applications - will remain viable but "in a minor role," Creese and O'Kelly wrote.

The two analysts cited several reasons to back up their contentions:

  • Other than in "simple scenarios," they said, Open XML beats ODF in terms of compatibility with prior Office document formats. "This may be an inconvenient truth for Microsoft competitors, but it will remain so unless Sun and other ODF supporters revise ODF to include full Office file format compatibility."
  • "Much to the chagrin of Microsoft competitors," Creese and O'Kelly wrote, "Microsoft appears to be sincere in its efforts to make [Open XML] a meaningful and global industry standard." Open XML already has been accepted by the Ecma International standards body, which Monday published a 2,300-page document addressing complaints and suggestions about the format from members of Geneva-based International Standards Organization. The latter group in September narrowly rejected an attempt by Ecma to win fast-track ISO standard approval for Open XML.
  • Open XML is "more complex than ODF, but it's not unnecessarily complex for the contexts it was designed to address," according to the Burton analysts. Moreover, they claimed that only "a very small percentage of application developers" will need to fully master Open XML, just as "few" developers have mastered all aspects of formats such as PostScript or PDF.
  • Creese and O'Kelly wrote that although ODF is "a clean and useful design, [it] addresses only a subset of what most organisations do with productivity applications today." They added that ODF's evolution "will likely be slow and complex, in part because of the fact that Openoffice.org, the primary implementation of ODF, is arguably still, in some respects, controlled by Sun Microsystems."
  • ODF proponents contend that OpenOffice.org and other alternatives to Office will win in budget-constrained environments, such as governments or schools in poorer countries. But Creese and O'Kelly countered that success is "not a forgone conclusion for ODF" because of Microsoft's cut-rate Office pricing for those customers, such as its US$3 Student Innovation Suite.

However, Marino Marcich, executive director of the ODF Alliance, said that many users were taking "a buyer-beware attitude" toward Open XML because that format "is not interoperable and will tie them to the upgrade path of a single vendor."

For example, he noted that the British government's educational technology agency, Becta has released a report advising that to ensure the widest compatibility of files between different applications, Office 2007 users shouldn't save documents in Open XML. Instead, Becta recommended the continued use of Microsoft's older and proprietary .doc, .xls and .ppt formats.

Those formats "dominate the current landscape," Marcich acknowledged. "But the issue is the format of the future, and there ODF has taken a considerable lead [over Open XML]." He claimed that more than 40 applications now include support for ODF, and that online documents stored in ODF outnumber ones stored in Open XML "by a margin of 80:1."

The combination of ODF and OpenOffice.org made some strides last year, primarily among governments overseas. But those technologies haven't made much headway in the US, where bills seeking to mandate the use of open document formats by government agencies were defeated in at least five states during 2007.

A positive result for Microsoft in the Ecma-led effort to have Open XML ratified by ISO - which already has accepted ODF as a standard - could help prevent more foreign governments from defecting from Office.

But Creese and O'Kelly said in their report that no one should expect Open XML's approval or non-approval as a standard "to have market-altering ramifications." They added that Microsoft's many competitors will ensure that if the software vendor "abuses standards initiatives, the market response will be swift and severe."

The two analysts also predicted that software-as-a-service vendors working with documents online likely will have to add Open XML support to their products over time. In addition, they said that they expect Adobe Systems Inc.'s PDF to remain the dominant format for "non-revisable" documents. But ODF and especially Open XML will prevent PDF from catching on with documents that still may be changed or edited, such that Adobe will "likely" add support for Microsoft's format to its Buzzword online word processor, Creese and O'Kelly said.