GCN Tech Blog

By GCN Staff

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XML office debate moves to look-and-feel

Late last year, when we interviewed and VisiCalc co-creator and general IT statesman Dan Bricklin about the controversy over Massachusetts specifying the Open Document Format in its technical reference model, he expressed puzzlement over all the attention surrounding ODF. It was, he pointed out, just one small item in what seemed like a pretty radical proposal for the state. Odd it should be the focus of debate.

And yet the debate continues. This Wednesday, the federal Extensible Markup Language Community of Practice will hold its monthly meeting at the federal headquarters of Microsoft Corp. There, Microsoft technical specialist Philo Janus will present an overview of Microsoft's own competing XML format for office documents, Open XML.

Perhaps Janus will also answer some of question brought up about Open XML at the last XML CoP meeting. In that gathering, speakers from IBM and Sun Microsystems talked up the benefits of ODF, especially in comparison to Open XML. One of the major topics of discussion was preserving the look-and-feel of documents. Will citizens of the future be able to recreate documents'as they looked to their creators'without the software that created them?

It all comes down to the format, argued Robert Weir, an IBM software architect who is a member of the OASIS ODF technical committee.

'Does the format define [the document] in a way that is independent of machine architecture, or is it doing things to tie it to a particular machine architecture,' he asked rhetorically.

Weir noted that ODF uses the W3C Scalable Vector Graphics standard, as well as the XSL Formatting Objects, for rendering graphics, whereas Microsoft is planning to use DrawingML, which he insinuated does not have the same level of backing by a standards group, and may require the Microsoft Windows platform to render pages correctly.

(It should be noted, at least with current software, that ODF documents may not be rendered precisely the same across all platforms and software packages even now, at least if a heated discussion on Fedora Core mailing list is any indication. 'An office document is not a bitmap and the WYSIWYG part has always been more a best effort thing than a hard commitment,' one contributor in this forum noted.)

In any case, Janus will probably be able to address this issue on Wednesday. In addition to Open XML, Janus will also be talking about a lesser-discussed XML specification, the Microsoft XML Paper Specification. XPS has been described by many as Microsoft's version of the Adobe Portable Document Format, PDF.

Then again, hasn't the problem of providing a standard body-certified document display format already been solved, namely through PDF/A, now an ISO standard? And dare we taunt Microsoft with the fact that PDF/A managed to get developed and ratified with relatively little controversy, even while Adobe Systems made it clear that it would keep adding new, advanced PDF functions that would not'at least not initially'be in PDF/A?

Also, let us not forget that there is a great deal of government information not encapsulated in office documents at all, but rather residing in databases. And, to extend Bricklin's point, where is the buzz here? How would you preserve databases for the ages? Will SQL be around in 20, 50 or 100 years?

This was the question pondered on the PostgreSQL general topics mailing list a few weeks back. Various solutions were discussion, including emulation, virtualization and vacuum-sealed DVDs. Our favorite suggested solution was decidedly low-tech: Export the entire database in a flat ASCII file, and document the file well enough that an administrator can a write a script to extract the needed information. "If you can't imagine extracting the data with a small Perl script and less than a day's work today then your successor will likely curse your name in 20 years time," Steve Atkins wrote.

--Posted by Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Jul 17, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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