posted by Christian Paratschek on Wed 16th Nov 2005 19:02 UTC
IconOpenDocument got a lot of publicity lately. StarOffice 8 and 2.0 finally arrived, and all the other makers of office suites (with the notable exception of Microsoft) have started implementing the new standard into their programs. Massachusetts recently decided to use OpenDocument as the standard file format, effectively locking out MS Office as soon as January 1st, 2007. Other countries are on their way to do the same. Also, OpenDocument recently got submitted to become an ISO standard.

Why support OpenDocument in browsers, you ask? In my opinion, rendering capabilities for OpenDocument are a logical complement to nowadays HTML-rendering. Just imagine you could write a small text, spreadsheet or presentation and put it on your website without changing anything. "Write once, run everywhere", they say (about Java, admittedly). No need to worry about the formatting - your browser of choice renders the document perfectly fine. This would solve a lot of common problems and simplify the process of web publishing significantly. Let's have a look at the options we have right now:

  1. Put the document directly on the web;
  2. Export to PDF;
  3. Export to HTML.

The first option is really ugly: I don't really want to see MS Office files offered for download. Not everyone has MS Office, as it is pretty expensive and doesn't run on any platform except for Windows and OS X. Plus, there is virtually no browser integration.

The second option is quite good. PDF is a well-known standard. Still, it has some drawbacks: your visitors still need the PDF-plugin installed on their machine. Also, there is no way to edit a PDF-file. This is fine and most of the time you will probably not want people to edit your files. But it still may be possible that you want to publish a document that others can not only view but also download and edit. Also, the exporting of the file to a new format is basically just extra work that should not be necessary.

Exporting to HTML: this is probably the best way to make your documents "web-ready". The big drawback is that you lose (most of) the formatting of your document. Also, if you want to work with that file later again, you will probably not pick the HTML version but the original (.doc), edit this one and export to HTML again. Again, exporting the file is redundant work.

Now imagine the advantages of OpenDocument: it would be instantly possible for anyone to create web-ready documents. The formatting would be consistent. No problems with different browsers. Also, Writer, Calc, Abiword, Gnumeric, or the KOffice suite (just to name a few) are much better tools to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations than, let's say, Dreamweaver.

Also, I imagine that implementing OpenDocument rendering capabilities into browsers should be fairly easy: OpenDocument is a well-defined XML-standard. After all, browser programmers have a long history of wrestling with "HTML-soup". Today, browsers render almost everything that calls itself "HTML", including dozens of legacy tags introduced by Netscape 1-4 and Internet Explorer 1-5. It should be fairly easy to implement a completely new, well-formed, 100%-correct XML standard.

I know that there is already a possibility to render OpenDocument files on Mozilla/Firefox: there is a plugin in (it can be found under "Extras" - "Options" - "Internet" - "Mozilla Plug-In"). But this is not the solution that I envision: in my opinion browsers should be able to render OpenDocument XML just as they do HTML right now. OpenDocument could then become a very much appreciated supplement to HTML. "The" format for longer texts, spreadsheets and presentations. Of course, this would not really work as long as Internet Explorer does not support OpenDocument. But eventually, Microsoft may be forced to support OpenDocument sooner or later. Let's hope the best. Lots of cool possibilities ahead!

About the author:
Christian Paratschek, 29, works as Webdesigner and IT-Professional in Vienna, Austria.

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