A JISC TechWatch report on XML-based Office Document Standards (TSW0702) has just been published.  As described on the TechWatch Web site:

This TechWatch report explains these issues and some of the standards involved. It proposes that although the UK higher and further education sector has, for a long time, understood the interoperability benefits of open standards, it has been slow to translate this into easily understandable guidelines for implementation at the level of everyday applications such as office document formats. As far as education is concerned, the use of modifiable office document formats has now reached a crucial stage. There is an urgent need for co-ordinated, strategically informed action over the next five years, if the higher education community is to facilitate a cost effective approach to the switch to XML-based office document formats.

The report, written by Walter Ditch,  (and featured in The Register and on ZDnet) provides a very useful background to the needs for open document formats, a discussion about what openness means in this context (which references two of my papers on “Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access” and “A Contextual Framework For Standards“) and provides a summary of the strengths and weakness of the Open Document Format (ODF) and the Office Open XML format (OOXML).

The report argues that it is now timely for the HE sector to address the issue of how we should move away from use of proprietary office file formats. The report doesn’t make a recommendation on which format(s) we should  adopt or on the deployment strategies we will need – and I think the report is wise in this respect, as any decisions taken now may be made redundant by decisions to be made by ECMA regarding the standardisation of OOXML in the near future.  However the report does provide very useful information which will help to inform future discussions.

Recommended reading for a topic which, as Paul Anderson, the technical editor of the report, says on his blog there is “a searing debate about which particular XML format all these software packages should make use of and which standard they should use“.  Paul goes on to say “It’s an indication of how deeply these issues are felt and how bitter the XML standardisation battle has become. It really is a war of words.”  Paul’s editorial role and the peer-reviewing process for this report have helped to ensure that the content of the report provides a neutral summary of the background to the standardisation processes.