The document format wars are upon us. I know this, because I got a tech query from someone at another desk. She couldn’t open the attachment she’d been sent. The file had an .odt extension. Someone had saved a document from Open Office using its defaults, and emailed it, probably without realising that this could cause problems for the recipient.
ODT is Open Document Text, the XML document format supported by Open Office and heavily promoted by IBM, Sun and everyone not in the Microsoft camp. The solution? There are converters around, some of which don’t work properly, but the easy answer is to go along to openoffice.org and download the free Open Office suite. In Windows, this sets up the requisite file association so you can double-click an .odt document and it opens. Once open, you can edit it in Open Office or use the clipboard to copy the contents into Word or other applications.
Installing Open Office is painless. The main caveat is that you might want to stop the thing loading itself at startup. Otherwise you’ll find a process called soffice.bin occupying large amounts of memory even when you are not using it. Right-click the OpenOffice icon in the system tray, uncheck “Load OpenOffice.org during system startup”, then choose Exit Quickstarter. Next time you restart, you should not be troubled by soffice.exe or soffice.bin until you actually want to use Open Office. Of course you might prefer Open Office to Microsoft Office. In that case, by all means leave the quickstarter in place.
What’s interesting here is how effective document format frustrations are in persuading, almost forcing users to install new software. Those who follow the above advice now have two office suites on their system. If they find themselves receiving lots of .odt files, or get many requests for documents in that format, they might switch, just to make it easier to get their work done.
What about the other scenario, where users receive .docx attachments? This is Microsoft’s Open Office XML, and is the default save format in Word 2007. It’s not too bad for existing Office users; they just download an add-in from Microsoft which, unlike the ODT converter, works smoothly in my experience. Only those with Office 97 or earlier will run into problems. It’s not so good for those who do not currently use Office, or for Mac users, though free utilities like this Mac example are turning up. Note that whereas Open Office is a complete solution for .odt, most converters have shortcomings and tend to lose some of the formatting or content of the original.
The key difference here is easily stated. Users who need to deal with .odt files will install Open Office. Users who need to deal with .docx files will be more inclined to get a converter – because buying Office 2007 is expensive, or not available at all for those who do not run Windows. In other words, the document format wars will increase the installed base of Open Office, but this will be less true of Microsoft Office.
Personally I prefer Microsoft Office, though in fairness it’s a year or so since I took a careful look at Open Office. On the other hand, Open Office is free and pretty good. Many users of word processors and spreadsheets don’t stress the products at all; where this is the case, it is hard to see how Microsoft Office is worth the extra cost. That said, most people use Microsoft Office anyway, simply because it is the de facto standard. That position is now being eroded.