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If you’ve been reading our blog before, you’ve probably already figured out one thing: we love Open Source and Apple products. Because of this, all our desktop machines run either Linux or Mac OS. Although our mixture of platforms might not be representative for all organizations, this article is still likely to apply to all start-ups and companies that are trying to create a company-wide policy for document-formats.

In our organization today we have three different office suites:

While all of these office suites have their pros and cons, they work just fine until the moment you try to move between suites. In the past in most organization it was often the case that everyone was forced to use Microsoft Office because some manager was bribed by Microsoft upper management said so. However, this is no longer a reasonable approach when we have a more diversified desktop environment than ever before. Today it’s no longer rare that we have Macs and PCs running both Windows, OS X and Linux in the same network. Because of this, forcing all users to use Microsoft Office is no longer reasonable.

First out: Microsoft’s .doc/.xls/.ppt

We’ve concluded that requiring all users to use the same software is unreasonable, but we still need to decide on one document-format that all users can both read and write. The first document format that comes to mind is the .doc-format for documents, and the .xls-format for spreadsheets. Let’s analyze this option a bit.

License: Microsoft’s own proprietary format.

Application .doc .xls .ppt
Open Office Yes (but layout problems) Yes Yes (but layout problems)
Apple iWork Yes (but layout problems) Yes (but uses a different structure natively) Yes (but layout problems)
Microsoft Office Yes (native) Yes (native) Yes (native)

Verdict: Ok, so all of the above editors support Microsoft’s proprietary file-formats. However, the drawback is that it is a proprietary format, which means that both iWork’s and Open Office’s implementation of these formats are most likely reverse-engineered. The real implication of this reverse-engineering is that the support is not really perfect. As you might have experienced, when using Open Office or Pages to export to .doc files, oftentimes the layout of the document is ruined. Since they layout tends to be quite important in business-documents, I would consider this a major drawback.

Next: Open Office’s .odt/.ods/.odp (Open Document Format)

You’ve probably already figured out that this would be our favorite, but let’s try to be unbiased. Similarly to the .doc/.xls/.ppt-combo, we’ll start out with a table of the support in the relevant applications.

Licensing: Creative Commons.

Application .odt .ods .odp
Open Office Yes (native) Yes (native) Yes (Native)
Apple iWork No No No
Microsoft Office Yes, with plug-in Yes, with plug-in Yes, with plug-in

Verdict: Unfortunately it seems like the Open Document Format won’t work. Here the biggest problem is iWork. It is really a shame that Apple chose to not include support for this format. However, there might be an answer for why this is. According to Apple’s list of features in Leopard, we can see that there’s support for Open Document Format in TextEdit. Without having any evidence at all for this claim, we would guess that Apple intentionally chose to not include the support for Open Document Format in iWork simply because they would add support for the format on OS-level in Leopard.

The decision

As you can see in the charts above, none of the two alternatives is perfect. What holds the .doc/.xls/.ppt-combo back is its proprietary nature. Because of this, all the other applications fail to read and write these files good enough for a corporate environment. What holds the Open Document Format back is the lack of implementation in iWork. Moreover, it might also be cumbersome to have to use a plug-in to read and write Open Document Files in Microsoft Office, even that that’s still better than no support at all.

The bottom line is that at this point, the only possible approach is to use the .doc/.xls/.ppt-combo. Although we don’t like it, we’re out of luck with Open Document Format due to the lack of support in iWork. However, because of the uncertainty of the support of Open Document Format in Leopard, we will actually wait and see until it’s launched to take a formal policy decision on our Document-format.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Why do you have to use iWork in OS X and MS Office in Windows and not just on all platforms?

  2. Viktor Petersson says:

    Although you’re right, it’s possible to run Open Office on all platforms, I would say that running Open Office in OS X is everything by pleasant (until they released the native Aqua-version). At this point, there’s just too many drawbacks having to run Open Office trough X11/xorg (just to mention copy and paste for one).

    Another reason why we use iWork instead of Open Office or Microsoft’s Office in OS X is because it is superior when it comes to design and layout. Just compare the average presentation made in Keynote with the average presentation made in Open Office’s Presenter or Microsoft’s PowerPoint and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, you can probably create an equally good looking presentation in Open Office or Microsoft’s Office as in Keynote, but it will probably take you three times as long and a whole lot more experience in visual design than the average user possesses (sorry…we really like Open Source, but Open Office is still too far behind iWork when it comes to design).

  3. 217.06B says:

    What about Google Docs?

  4. Viktor Petersson says:

    True that is an option.However I don’t think too many companies that would feel comfortable handing over all their confidential documents to a 3rd party. Maybe I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.

    Although I love the idea of Google Docs, I still consider it too much beta to be used in a production environment.

  5. 208.01B says:

    How would you respond to people who believe the days of applications running on local hard-drives are coming to and end?
    Do you think privacy concerns will keep companies (and the public) from embracing browser based applications?

  6. Viktor Petersson says:

    >How would you respond to people who believe the days of applications running on local hard-drives are coming to and end?

    I’m believe so too to some extent. As you can read in our article-series of the sub-$3,000 IT infrastructure (Part 1, Part 2), it is certainly possible. Although the idea of running applications on a central server, rather than on the desktops has been around (and that’s were it started) since the very first computers. Both running applications on a desktop and on a server has ups and downs. However, one of the major benefits of running applications on a server (web or local) is the reduced admin work. If a desktop fails, disconnect it, throw in a new one, and you’re up running in less than five minutes. If I think local hard-drives are coming to an end anytime soon? No. But in a corporate setting I think we will see many desktops replaced by thin clients.

    If your question refers to running applications over the web instead of on local machines, I’m not equally convinced. Although I embrace the idea, I don’t think the web (as we know it today) is a very well suited platform to replace local applications. But who knows how this will change over the next five years.

    >Do you think privacy concerns will keep companies (and the public) from embracing browser based applications?

    Yes and no. We’ve already seen a quite rapid growth of web-based accounting systems for instance. If people can do accounting online, I also think people might use other browser-based applications online for other sensitive information as well. Personally I’m quite scared of loosing control of business information by uploading it to someone else’s servers. Instead I think with the growth of virtual machines, we will start to see more and more cheap intranet solutions from major vendors that will allow business users to get (most of) the benefits of a browser-based, while still maintaining control over their data.

    As far as the public use of browser-based applications goes I don’t think privacy will be a great problem. Sure, one should always be cautious of what one upload online. It would be stupid to create a Google Doc including your credit card numbers and social security number. However, a lot of the information that one collects is not of that sensitive nature. I most cases, being able to share and collaborate is more important than the security.

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