IBM Gives MS Office the Boot, Moves to OpenDocument Format
In two days, IBM will have finished preparations to transition all of its employees away from Microsoft's Office suite to their own version of the OpenOffice.org suite, Lotus Symphony. By Monday, every IBM computer will have Symphony installed, and the company will begin creating and sharing only open format documents. The move marks the most significant shift away from Microsoft's de facto standard office suite and proprietary document format by a single company, and—if well documented and supported—could help many other businesses do the same.
Microsoft's Office 2003 XML and more recent Open XML file formats, the proprietary standards used by MS Office, have become an international standard by virtue of Microsoft's dominant position in the market and aggressive moves to maintain customers in education, business and government. As a result, organizations are required to upgrade their software frequently and at great cost to keep up with changes to the format that Microsoft, alone, controls. Also because of this control, there is no guarantee future versions of the format will be backwards compatible, as many discovered when Microsoft moved to OOXML—the new .docx files could not be read in older versions of MS Office.
In contrast to Microsoft's proprietary, platform-dependent format, the OpenDocument Format supported by Lotus Symphony (and dozens of other free office suites) is an open standard that can be implemented in software free of charge and has extensive documentation. IBM's decision to switch to the ODF was largely to ensure compatibility into the future, and across platforms.
For exactly these reasons, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts explored switching to ODF back in 2005, going so far as to finalize an open standards proposal for state document creation. Unfortunately, Massachusetts Chief Information Officer Peter Quinn, who spearheaded the switch, was charged by the Boston Globe with traveling to related conferences at the expense of Microsoft's competitors. Though he was later cleared of wrongdoing, Quinn resigned shortly thereafter and Massachusetts never completed the move to ODF.
With nearly 400,000 employees, all of whom will be creating and sharing exclusively ODF documents by the end of the year, IBM is now in a unique position to push the ODF standard into the mainstream. Though 400,000 new ODF users will only scratch the surface of Microsoft Office's dominance, that scratch will widen and may start to do real damage as IBM distributes ODF documents to customers on its website and to other businesses. And—one presumes—this transition marks the start of a more aggressive IBM effort to increase the market share of its own office suite.
Though Lotus Symphony is free to use (after providing a name and email—fake credentials work fine), it is based on the OpenOffice.org 1.x source code, which was licensed more liberally than the current version and as a result, IBM is under no legal obligation to provide source code for any modifications. (Effective with OOo 3.0, source code is licensed under LGPL, requiring any additions to the source also be published.)
Open Media Boston takes the position that this source code should be published to benefit both consumers and the developer community. IBM has developed an attractive, stable and easy to use cross-platform office suite, the open-sourcing of which would inject new blood into the largely Sun-supported OOo project. Even if IBM decides against this, though, they can still help by closely and publicly documenting the transition process. Though most office suites are very similar, there are still technical and cultural challenges that may make a switch difficult; this is especially true for organizations that must support the new software in their IT environment and may need to retrain employees.
IBM has an opportunity to market their free (as in beer) office suite to businesses, schools, nonprofits and individuals at the same time they provide the free (as in freedom) software community with material it needs to popularize ODF and open standards, generally. Just as a start, IBM can release YouTube videos discussing the similarities between Symphony and MS Office, the benefits of using ODF, and technical documentation and best practices advice on supporting OOXML and ODF in a mixed IT environment.
This moment can be a win-win for IBM and free software, but Big Blue needs to make the first move. Is IBM up to the challenge?