Sun Announces ODF Plug-In for MS Office

Great news today. Sun has announced that it will make available a plug-in for Microsoft Office that adds seamless support for ISO/IEC 26300 OpenDocument format. It works by using a highly optimised build of OpenOffice.org as a conversion engine and then inserting code into Word that adds ODF as just another peer file format, so that users can open and save ODF files just they way they would expect to, the same way as RTF, Doc and any other file format. You can even set ODF as the default file format.

Since the conversion is done by the same ultra high quality code that's used in OpenOffice.org, the quality for the conversions is excellent. There will be a preview version available for download in a few weeks that works with Word 2003, and we'll have a full version (that also exposes support for Excel and Powerpoint to use ODF formats) in the spring.

In other words, we've done what Microsoft could and should have done in the first place instead of FUD-ing and fighting. We've used freely available open-source code to build seamless, intuitive support for ODF into MS Word. No unmaintainable XSLT. No funky, redundant additional menu items. No tortuous workflow designed to make users treat ODF as second class. No pre-requisite for the OOXML add-in to make it work. Just peer support for the industry-standard file format, using open source rather than building from scratch so the improvements that are made to OpenOffice.org lead to improvements in the plug in.

This means that users of accessibility devices don't have to be left behind by migrations to ODF. People with those (expensive) assentive aids are trapped on Office 2003 since the devices use reverse-engineered closed APIs. By adding seamless ODF support, they are able to be full peers in a working environment that is moving to OpenDocument. As the release says:

The Executive Department of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is currently using the converter to meet the previously identified January, 2007 compliance date for the start of a phased migration to the ODF format. In addition to allowing the Commonwealth's existing Microsoft Office applications to read and write ODF text files, the converter permits the continued use of the state's chosen accessibility technologies to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Update: Erwin has some screen shots that shows how Word looks with the plug-in installed.

Comments:

Simon, "Addendum, I would estimate GLOBAL Open Document Format (.odf) adoption prompted ISO submission of Portable Document Format (.pdf) code for 'standard' recognition by ADOBE." Recall, ADOBE'S format has been around a long time. As BOTH formats are available within SOv8 and/or OOv2 for file publication, SUN support has certainly proved 'a good thing!'

Posted by William R. Walling on February 07, 2007 at 04:46 AM PST #

Did you see Microsoft's related announcement a few days earlier? They've been funding development of an open-source ODF<->OpenXML converter, which also provides a Word plugin for opening ODF files.

Perhaps this announcement from Sun is a reaction to the Microsoft announcement...

Posted by Luke on February 07, 2007 at 06:57 AM PST #

I think this removes the requirement that companies upgrade their office packages to 2007 in order to remain compatible with everyone else. Coupled with the totally different ribbon interface we should see stagnation of Office 2007 sales.

Posted by Peter on February 07, 2007 at 07:52 AM PST #

@Luke: Actually, Sun advised a number of interested ODF partners that we were doing this and I believe Microsoft's announcement was motivated by a desire to pre-empt our news, which we have been planning for many weeks. I am well aware of the project you link to and refer to it extensively in my third paragraph.

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 07, 2007 at 07:55 AM PST #

This is really good news. Much better than the MS approach, where ODF is not available as a proper file format.
But there are some significant limitations to Writer's support for Word docs which will become very apparent now. We work on a project that uses OOo with a known style sheet which is designed with interop in mind, and still find that we have to clean-up a lot things.
Currently Writer's table handling is broken and won't be fixed until version 2.3, and interchange of lists and document outlines is pretty bad.
For example, see point 19 in our tips and tricks. This is the kind of stuff that you have to worry about when using OpenOffice.org to open Word docs.
I have also covered some of the issues with lists in Word and Writer on my blog; here's a sample of some of the issues: http://del.icio.us/ptsefton/lists

Posted by Peter Sefton on February 07, 2007 at 10:03 AM PST #

Ok. Now how about an OpenXML plugin for OpenOffice so users will be able to share their docs with their clueless M$ counterparts?

Posted by Pottymouth on February 07, 2007 at 12:55 PM PST #

@Peter: Yep, no need to waste money on migrating to Office 2007. I prefer "migrate" to "upgrade" as the term to describe it.

@Peter Sefton: Thanks. Improvement in the conversion technology in OO.o is always welcome - have you filed a bug report with your example to help the developers fix the problems you're experiencing? A huge benefit of our approach is we only have to fix these sort of things in one place.

@Pottymouth: Novell has signed up to do this, but as they are starting from the MS-sponsored thingy I suspect they have a long way to go.

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 07, 2007 at 04:58 PM PST #

By the way, I know one reader was offended by my comment about XSLT. I am not saying that XSLT is always unmaintainable (although that's a topic for debate), but rather the unreasonably huge quantity of it in the MS-funded convertor probably is by virtue of its mass and density.

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 07, 2007 at 05:01 PM PST #

@Simon
Daniel de Byl from the ICE project has entered bug reports with the most serious of our problems to help the developers fix the problems. Most of the issues we encounter have already been noted by others, though.
We try to be selective as there are a LOT of bugs to fix. We are concerned about two key areas: Word interop and HTML export.
Lots of problems seem to have been reported doxens of times, so the report Daniel filed about tables sat in the system for more than a year. Eventually we worked out that it is being addressed in v2.3.
I have had direct contact with OOo developers regarding the issue of list support in Writer and a Microsoft Program manager regarding Word, where list support is (IMO) slightly better designed, but just as poorly implemented - so far those conversations have not gone very far.
I would really like the Sun bloggers I read (you & Tim Bray) to take a slightly less partisan approach to OOo - it's a great, great thing, but it has significant problems that need to be addressed; have you tried to download it, open it up and make a decent sized web page with some bullets, some numbered lists and some photos? Are you aware that the HTML export does not even resize JPEG images, ie if you put in a 10MP image from your camera Writer will export it at full resolution and add height and width attributes in the HTML?
Even with all the problems, we still use and recommend OOo at the University of Southern Queensland, and it is key to our Free Software product ICE.
We also use Microsoft Word, because at this point it is unavoidable. It too has some serious problems. I'd much rather we were able to ditch it and use Writer.
And I think XSLT is a great tool for some things, but it is not an appropriate one for a word processing document converter, 'cos it will be waaaaay too slow.

Posted by Peter Sefton on February 07, 2007 at 07:36 PM PST #

@Peter Sefton: Thanks for the bug reports, appreciated. Yes, I'm aware OO.o has it's challenges - I use it every day for everything connected with documents and it has plenty that needs work, especially the HTML support. I'm partisan because it's (in a very real sense) my baby, so I am as likely to criticise it as Jason Matusow is likely to criticise MS Office, but I like to think I keep my support for it the honest side of the truth - keep calling me on it :-)

You're right on the XSLT. I was chatting to a friend last night (at a competitor actually) and he noted that the MS-sponsored convertor was taking around 2 hours on his (pretty routine) test documents and at the end producing much worse results than loading into OO.o

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 07, 2007 at 11:32 PM PST #

So, do I have to install OpenOffice to use the plugin? And, Peter, the ribbon interface is a quantum leap forward in terms of usability. I balked when I first saw it, too, but after playing with it for about 10 minutes I realized that once again MS shows why they're the leaders. Yeah, yeah, I know, it's 'cause they're a "monopoly".

Posted by Spoonman on February 07, 2007 at 11:41 PM PST #

No, the plug-in does not require you to have installed OpenOffice.org

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 07, 2007 at 11:44 PM PST #

Hi Simon. I knew about this page and preferred to link to the press release. I just didn't want to feed the whose-FUD-doesn't-smell FID-bath. You were kind enough to visit and to link in your comment, and I will leave it. And, as I said, I'm looking forward to the preview release. I think this kind of improvement and different approaches is very fruitful and will teach us all a lot. I love how the StarOffice/OOo Sun team operates. They are a great model for professional-level open-source development.

Posted by orcmid on February 07, 2007 at 11:50 PM PST #

@Orcmid: What's the FUD on this page that would make you not want to link to it? I'd be pleased to clarify whatever I have wrong.

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 08, 2007 at 12:22 AM PST #

This is exciting stuff. Will the ODF Plug-In be open source? Can I get the source code now? If not, why isn't it being worked on in the open right now? Thanks! I'm looking forward to playing with this.

Posted by James Ward on February 08, 2007 at 01:49 PM PST #

@James: The conversion engine is just a special build of OpenOffice.org, so all the source code to it is available right now at that site. The part that is inserted into MS Word is new code and we're still considering what to do with it. We will probably just leave it as closed code to start with but longer term we've not decided.

Posted by Simon Phipps on February 08, 2007 at 01:53 PM PST #

bvI have a possible use for this, especially the presentation part. On the linuxworld.com web site we have an events section with a bunch of presentations from LinuxWorld conferences. Some speakers choose to give us OpenOffice presentations, but a lot of the site users have Microsoft Office. Will individual users be able to go to a download page at Sun and add this plugin themselves? Or will the system administrator have to do it? If an individual user can add the plugin, I'd like to put a button on our site.

Posted by Don Marti on February 10, 2007 at 12:33 AM PST #

Oh sorry, I didn't check back here until led by Bob Sutor's link today (wondering if he was referring to something new). I see you asked me a question. Previously, when I reached the third paragraph I lost interest. My fud detector tends to go off when there are attributions of FUD to others and assertions about what someone else could and should have done. I stopped reading right there. I probably should adjust the sensitivity a little. I'm more interested in how well the Sun converter will work in practice and I await the preview release. The GullFOSS folk provided the kind of information that interests me most. I read their posts with great interest.

Posted by orcmid on February 16, 2007 at 12:35 AM PST #

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