The OpenOffice.org conference celebrating the tenth birthday of OpenOffice.org started in Budapest yesterday morning. Here are some first notes from the field.

The opening session was a cool moment, both for the location (the Hungarian Parliament) and for the content. We started in the very hall of the Parliament. Incidentally, the first thing I noted there has nothing to do with OO.o but is a general problem of the FOSS and programming worlds: of about 150 people in the hall, no more than 10% were women, even if OO.o and FOSS users aren’t certainly 90% males, are we? But I digress.

The official conference brochure starts with a welcome message of the ODF Alliance Hungary noting “how appropriate it is that such a conference takes place in a region filled with resonance from the collapse of the totalitarian regime of the former Eastern block” that is an example of closed society replaced by a much more open one, and in a University that is based on an open society vision, open to improvement whose values evolve through trial and error, just like OSS. Dr Zsolt Nyitrai, State Secretary of the Ministry of National Development, greeted participants pointing out how the current government of Hungary fully acknowledges the importance of FOSS and the OpenDocument Format (ODF), proved by several practical experiences:“We encourage you to help us to open the closed doors of administration in the world of Open Source office software” (see also the official press release). Professor Rev also gave a really interesting speech, but since it’s much more general than OO.o or FOSS, I’ll write about it on another website.

The day before the conference, some other participants had told me they were expecting with great interest the other keynote of Michael Benner, vice president, Oracle Office GB: “let’s hear what Oracle wants to do with OpenOffice.org…”. The answer, as far as Benner opening speech goes, was reassuring:

  • OpenOffice.org is a good fit for this company

  • Oracle OO will be highly integrated with other Oracle products

  • Our business units offering include:

    • Oracle OpenOffice server

    • Oracle ODF plugin for MS Office

    • Oracle premier support for the products above and for OOo

    • more to come…

Florian Schiessl explained what made the Munich’s conversion to OpenOffice.org work: maniac attention to detail and patience. They looked at some 21000 different templates and macros one by one and converted each of them manually, but only when they were sure they couldn’t be abandoned, eventually reducing their number of about 40%. More info is at Wollmux. They had problems when they sent ODF files to other organizations that had never seen them before, but Schiessl’s suggestion is “do talk with your partners when they refuse ODF and there will be good results and simplification for everybody, for example like using MS formats, but abandoning MS-only macros because they were not necessary in the first place”. (of course, being one of the largest cities in Europe helps a lot in this approach… single users still have less opportunities to be heard).

Miklos Banai of ODFA Hungary closed the morning with a very interesting question: “Europe has a bigger population and GDP than the USA, yet Microsoft revenues here are around 10 billion usd/year, with a operating income/profit around 7 BUSD/year. This with OOXML that seems a standard of an artificial world of robots with artificial intelligence. I wonder if there is any human able to rebuild it with only the 6000+ pages of the OOXML spec… Is this the best deal for Europe?” For these reasons, Banai concluded, “the European Union should change for a younger, more valuable economical, flexible and secure solution for document creation”.

OpenOffice or OpenDocument?

By looking at the conference program one may wonder “is this an OpenOffice or OpenDocument conference?” Being there, I can confirm that, even if OO.o surely remains at the center of the stage, there is indeed a lot of interest in the OpenDocument format in and by itself, even outside of the single talks devoted to it. Louis Suarez-Potts, OO.o Community Development Manager, pointed out how in the next years it’s important to focus on ODF, since focusing only on OO.o doesn’t go very far, especially in Government circles. It is also crucial, he said, to make easier for more programmers to join development and to keep the whole community self-sustainable. Size in and by itself doesn’t really mean much (“think how General Motors ended”, Louis noted). What matters is “to not rely on any single company or language group: “a global community does not privileges one language, one nation…”. Louis final comment on the state of OO.o was: “The first 10 years were only setting the stage and clearing our throat. Real action starts now”.

I’ve seen many cool things in the first two days of the conference. One I liked a lot were the free and commercial extensions developed by EuroOffice. They include map-based charts, interaction with GoogleEarth, an education tool to generates interactive diagrams with orbits and other informations about planets and eco-friendly printing (still experimental) that erases backgraounds or large images and changes text color to black. The best one for me is the Planet tool, because it proves something I really want to investigate in the next months: the potential of OpenOffice.org as an educational platform, that is a tool to build interactive courseware.

Speaking of ODF

I spent day 2 of OOOcon only looking at, or speaking about… the OpenDocument format. In the ODF interoperability demo, Inge Wallin of KOffice created a letter with KWord, associating to his own name in the text his phone number, hidden into an RDF variable. He then sent the letter by email to a colleague who, in real time, opened it on his smartphone with FreOffice. Working in RDF mode, Freoffice realized that “Inge” wasn’t a normal string, showed his phone number and, after one click on it, Inge’s cell phone started ringing at the other side of the table. Rob Weir showed how Mathematica can generate math formulas directly usable in OpenDocument while Jos van der Oever suggested that future versions of ODF may move to the Web, using JavaScript for macros and CSS for styiling. When I was asked what I’d like to see in future versions of ODF, my gut reaction was “please leave it as it is, it’s already good enough!”. On a second thought, I’d like to see ODF do what the Universal Business Language was developed for (support automation of B2B financial transactions) and sentence-level cross-referencing, to stop saying things like “look at the 3rd paragraph on page 20” in an era where documents are often not printed, but displayed on screens of all possible sizes.

Another very interesting moment of the day was the “Building Bridges” talk by Moritz Berger of Microsoft. He explained why he thinks that it is wrong to promise 100% roundtrip fidelity (and I fully agree with him here) but there are plenty of good reasons to keep using both OOXML and ODF, that is two standards for the same type of files. He also explained MS ODF imlementation priorities in Office 2007, 2010 and beyond. They are, from first to last:

  • adhere to ODF standard

  • be predictable

  • preserve user intent

  • preserve editability

  • (last) preserve visual fidelity

Me, I explained why I’m sure that ODF scripting is both a simple, huge time-saver and a good way to convince more people to use OpenDocument and OpenOffice.org. In the next days, both my talk (and more first-hand news from OOOcon 2010) will be posted here, so stay tuned!