IBM has solved an issue with the Open Document Format (ODF) not being properly rendered in special software for visually impaired people.

iAccessible2 is a series of APIs that makes it easy for visuals in applications based on ODF and other Web technologies to be interpreted by screen readers that reproduce that information verbally.

The fact that ODF did not work properly with screen readers was a main concern in the acceptance of the open standard earlier this year by the Massachusetts' government, and has caused a delay in its acceptance.

IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind said that in the past it has been hard for screen-reading technology to keep up with the advent of cutting-edge development and file formats such as ODF, AJAX and DHTML. The latter two technologies allow increasingly complex visuals to be rendered in Web browsers, and those are difficult to translate for screen readers, he said.

iAccessible2 helps ODF communicate better with screen readers and also allow charts, pictures and other visuals based on AJAX and DHTML to be discerned by the visually impaired. "It's like a universal decoder ring," he said of iAccessible2. The technology is based on interfaces IBM originally developed with Sun Microsystems to make programs on Java and Linux platforms accessible to the blind.

IBM has donated its work to the Free Standards Group, a non-profit group that promotes open-source software. That organisation will work on the technology and maintain it as an open standard so anyone can use it, IBM said. Other companies working on the development of iAccessible2 include Sun, Oracle and SAP. Mozilla also intends to integrate iAccessible2 into Firefox.

ODF has been approved as an international standard by the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO), and is currently in competition with Microsoft's Open XML format to become the default file format for documents. Open XML is the basis of Microsoft's proprietary Office 2007 productivity suite and was recently approved by Ecma International as a standard. It has now been put forward to the ISO.

Companies such as IBM, Sun and others are promoting the use of ODF against Microsoft's technology, while others will support both ODF and Open XML just to be on the safe side, in case both are widely adopted.

The rivalry between ODF and Open XML heated up last year when Massachusetts put forth a proposal to change its default file format to ODF for all of its state agencies, which would mean they would have to stop using Microsoft Office. This eventually led Microsoft to submit Open XML as a standard as ODF was already going through that process. Increasingly, government agencies are moving their IT platforms to technologies that are considered standard throughout the industry, forgoing some technologies that are seen as proprietary.

Original reporting by IDG News Service.