OpenOffice.org Conference 2010, preparing the next ten years

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!

Final Notes from the ODF Plugfest in Granada

The second day of the Plugfest followed the same general scheme of the first one (covered in a separated page): a non-technical introduction followed by lots of hacking, feature analysis and product anticipations.

A representative of the Spanish Ministry of Presidency, Miguel Angel Amutio Gomez, started the day explaining the crucial points of the Spanish law 11/2007: the right for everybody to use whatever digital technology they like best and the obligation for all Public Administrations to avoid discrimination of citizens based on their technological choices. In order to make this possible, the law stresses the importance of open standards, setting the goal that all e-government services and documents become available at least through such standards. In this context, Amutio said, the Spanish National Interoperability Framework (NIF) that A. Barrionuevo presented in the first day becomes an essential legal test for all Spanish organizations.

Besides the law itself, the most interesting part of this presentation were the results of an analysis made using the NIF: it turns out that 30% to 40% of the about 400 digital standards already used for e-government in Spain comes from (in decreasing order): IETF, OASIS, W3C, ISO, and Microsoft.

After this stimulating factoid, the conference went back to strictly technical topics. Michiel Leenars of the Opendoc Society, showed us all you can do with OfficeShots. This is a rendering farm for office documents, primarily aimed to developers and power users but useful for everybody. When you upload your file to the OfficeShots server it will show you how it will look with many combinations of office suites and operating systems. If needed, an anonymizer kindly provided byt the lpOD folks (see Day One report) scrambles all the text to avoid online dissemination of sensible data. The most advanced use cases for OfficeShots include:

  • check before buying which ODF software works better with the kind of documents you actually need
  • design styles for corporate templates that render correctly on all office software products
  • (for developers) testing the interoperability of your program with other office suites

There is also a test suite gallery to help developers to test new versions of their products quickly. Of course, OfficeShots is an Open Source project to which everybody can contribute.

Microsoft and OpenDocument

Before lunch, Mario Wendt summed up the current status of Microsoft support for OpenDocument. Here are the main points:

  • Office 2010 will include over 1000 odf related bug fixes
  • Implementer notes for Office 2007 and Office 2010 requested by the community already available (even if only as single PDF files)
  • Study of the differences between ODF 1.1 and 1.2 in order to provide appropriate feedback
  • Ongoing work to contribute to finish OpenFormula
  • Commitment to support ODF 1.2 nine months after its formal approval by ISO

Opendocument on Android!

Using ODF documents on the road becomes easier and easier every year, at least for text ones. Oliver Mas presented the Android port of ODFMovil, a J2ME ODF viewer developed by Cenatic under an Apache 2/GPL2 license. The port, which was also intended as a pilot to estimate the complexity of porting bigger applications, was relatively easy due to the four-layer architecture of ODFMovil: core utilities, file management and compression, XML parsing, GUI. As it turned out, only the first and third layer could be ported. File management and graphical interface had to be rewritten from scratch. More details are available in Oliver’s ODFMovil slides.

OpenDocument for financial firms

There is a part of the OpenDocument standard that is really critical for its adoption, at least in some markets: the financial formulas that are used to calculate things like interest rates, mortgage payments and similar amenities. As Rob Weir put it, “an economist whose predictions aren’t wrong more than 10% is a genius, but a banker making a 1% error is a criminal”, so it’s essential that the formulas in OpenDocument don’t make any mistake. This is more complicated than it seems, to the point that a whole session of the Plugfest was reserved to this topic.

There are at least five ways to calculate the number of days between two dates that can in real life you can find mixed in different ways, depending on the traditions and regulations of every country (not to mention leap years): sometimes all months are assumed to last 30 days, and the year can be 360 days instead of 365. Since this changes how much you still owe to your bank after a few years of mortgage, it is absolutely necessary that all ODF compliant applications are 100% interoperable from this point of view. This means that each of them must declare without ambiguities what method it uses for day counts and how it handles (at least) the YEARFRAC() formula, even when it appears in a spreadsheet generated by another application.

Change tracking and handling of unique features

Another important moment of Day Two was the hacking session on management and interoperability of change tracking. Mario Wendt presented a test case that all developers could create and test on the spot, reporting the result on a common wiki: a text document with a fixed layout mixing a table, several paragraph and numbered list, on which everybody had to perform a well defined series of edits.

Saturday morning, instead, was “unique features” time. There are functions of some ODF capable suites that are simply absent from other programs: notable example are music shapes in KOffice or SmartDraw graphics in Microsoft Office. What must happen when you use such features in an ODF document that you want to share with users of other software? The session theme was that developers could, as a minimum, guarantee that:

  • their unique feature always provides a fall-back representation of that object that any other application can surely display(e.g a PNG version of SmartDraw graphics)
  • their application doesn’t mess with objects it can’t understand when it saves a file, so that, when the file itself is reopened with the application that inserted that object, it can still edit it
  • Careful readers of my ODF Day One report will immediately notice the intersection of this issue with the topic of my own talk and with what Rob Weir said about metadata interoperability. For the record, Rob also pointed out that the problem presented in my talk could also happen in another way: what if you insert into an OpenDocument file a macro in an open programming language (e.g. Python) that implements a patented algorithm? It will be really interesting to see how Public Administrations and other large organizations will handle all these issues in the medium/long term (if they see them in the first place, of course).

    Converting wikis to books in OpenDocument format

    The last cool thing I’d like to report from the Plugfest is a cool use of lpOD that Louis showed us on Friday: it turns out that you can use this software to export a whole wiki, or selected parts of it, to a book in OpenDocument text format. Besides a flexible templating system, the software gives you automatic generation of the Table of Contents and support for footnotes, tables and images. This could be a very handy publishing tool for schools writing their own textbooks or any other organization that creates text content working through the Internet!

    Notes from ODF Plugfest in Granada, Day One

    The ODF Plugfest is a Conference whose goal is to to achieve the maximum interoperability between competing applications, platforms and technologies in the area of digital document sharing, and to promote the OpenDocument format (ODF). This page, as the others that will follow on this website, is a short technical summary, primarily aimed at developers, of what happened during the first day of the conference. Later next week I’ll also post a non-technical summary of the whole event at the Stop.

    My own talk, which you can dowload at mfioretti.com, was about a problem I first saw in 2006/2007: how do you prevent proprietary components from “polluting” open container formats like ODF?

    Alberto Barrionuevo explained how Opentia contributed to the Spanish National Interoperability Framework (NIF). This is a very interesting work, that could and should be replicated in other countries: Opentia took the full text of the 2007 Spanish law about e-government and translated it in mathematical format in order to match, in the most unambiguous possible manner, each legal requirement to equivalent technical ones.

    The result is a huge spreadsheet that implements a finite state machine and tells you if and how ammissible each of about 550 protocols, file formats and programming languages is for e-government usage in Spain (for the record, about 80% of them pass the test, at least partially.

    Rob Weir of IBM summed up the status of the next version of the standard. ODF 1.2, which is almost done, will be divided in three parts: one for the core schema, one for the container and one for OpenFormula (do you remember that the first generation of ODF compliant spreadsheet suites lacked formula compatibility? This should fix that problem for good). New features will include digital signatures, support for RDF capabilities (see below) and native tables in presentation slides. An Interoperability demonstration of ODF 1.2 will take place at the OOoCon Conference in Budapest next September. Rob also mentioned that everybody can send in suggestions for the next version of the standard, that should include things like modularization, web profiles, enhanced SVG support and Xform integration. You can either answer OASIS calls for public comments, join the OASIS ODF TC or implement ODF 1.2 and send feedback.

    Later on, Rob also introduced another theme that could and should get a lot of attention in the next years, and that is also somewhat related to what I said in my own talk: ODF metadata and interoperability. What should happen if your editing software loads and ODF file containing metadata that that software doesn’t understand? Should it preserve or ignore those metadata?

    In some cases the answer is easy: metadata that behave like visual attributes, eg the bold tag (where the attribute (boldness) is separated from the data or content it applies to) can be removed or ignored without any real damage. Go beyond that, and interoperable metadata are much harder to achieve.
    What if, for example, a document is pasted into another one that has a different value for the same metadata, for example the one indicating who in the organization is responsible for approving that text? An even more interesting case is “Should I digitally sign a document that contains metadata I can’t see?”

    Another interesting moment of the day was when Jos van den Oever presented the work for RDF support for ODF 1.2 in KOffice. Generally speaking, RDF should help to add to the text enclosed in a document information about the meaning of that text, in a format that is directly and easily readable by a computer. Consider, for example, a sentence like “Paris is hot”. If it’s in plain text, for a computer it’s very difficult to understand, even by looking at the rest of the document, if it means that temperatures in the French capital are high or that Paris Hilton (or the mythological Trojan prince???) is sexy. Adding an RDF data triple to the Paris string, that labels it as a city, would eliminate that ambiguity. RDF could deeply change our definition of “document”. If all your files were tagged in this way, it would become much easier (and portable) to ask your computer questions like “find me all the cases discussed by my law firm that involved unemployment law, but not in its home town”.

    The end goal is to get to a whole desktop that can use RDF, where the user can read and write docs with RDF, directly cut and paste them between applications. The current work on KOffice will allow it to show the user all the RDF triples and the corresponding text strings in a document, and to use those data to check and show locations on digital maps, or export appointments or phone numbers straight into calendars or address books.

    Day one of the ODF Plugfest ended with a presentation of several interesting tools that generate, convert or analyze automatically all kinds of ODF files:

    • ASPOSE.WORD a .NET and Java library for document processing in ODF and many other formats in cloud,
      single server or desktop environments
    • lpOD, an even more interesting (for my personal use, that is) library to create ODF documents. lpOD is already usable in Python (Perl and Ruby will follow) and comes with an online cookbook
    • ODFDom Library, another library, in Java this time, to library, written to create, access and manipulate ODF files, without requiring detailed knowledge of the ODF specification

    (note to all Plugfest participants and all other readers who want to comment or add something to this page: I’ll enable comments from anonymous users as soon as I can configure the corresponding spam filters, but in the meantime please register or send me an email at mfioretti, at nexaima dot net. And if you want to translate this page, just let me know)