Using OpenDocument in Office

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About the rival document formats coming soon …


While most of the talk has been about the upcoming document format change in Office 2007 there are also a competitive set of Office file formats to consider.

The OpenDocument format is internationally recognized standard for Office documents for text, spreadsheets, presentations, charts and images. It is supported in some open source Office rivals like, StarOffice, Writely (now owned by Google), IBM Workplace and the next version of Lotus Notes.

Earlier this month (May 2006) the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) approved ODF as the standard for XML based Office suite documents. If you see references to ISO 26300 – that’s another name for ODF.

In this feature we’ll briefly cover the similarities and differences between the upcoming Office 2007 document formats and the OpenDocument format. Much of the current writings compare the Microsoft Office binary formats (doc, xls etc) or MS Open Office XML with OpenDocument formats – not what Microsoft has in the pipeline.

Mostly we’d like to prepare you for the possibility that someone will send you an OpenDocument file – with this issue you’ll be able to recognize them and use them in Office.

This is one of those Office Watch issues that some people will think doesn’t apply to them because it doesn’t seem to have an immediate use. We feel it’s something all Office users should be aware of before there’s an urgent need.


Let’s get the acronyms out of the way first.

OASIS = Open Document Format for Office Applications is the long title for the collection of file formats.

ODF = OpenDocument Format – the short title.

XML = eXtensible Markup Language

ISO 26300 = the International Organization for Standardization ID number for the ODF standard.

ODF creates a definition for the common types of Office application documents. Equivalents to the DOC, XLS, PPT, MDB formats we’re familiar with plus definitions for drawings, charts, formulas and images.

There’s also an interesting ‘Master Document’ format (which is different to the Word feature with the same name). ODF Master documents let you combine different types of ODF documents into a single file.

Separate templates are also supported including one for web pages.

A full list of the ODF document extensions is later in this issue.


The file formats are based on XML and uses existing XML open standards where possible.

The contents of your, say, Word document is written out in a series of interlinked XML files which describe your text, the formatting, images and associated information (‘Metadata’ like Author, Keywords etc).

Those XML files are gathered together and compressed into a single file with a predefined file extension.

All these little XML files and compression is done by the program and is ‘transparent’ to the regular user. They’ll just open and save a document unaware of the technical jiggery-pokery going on behind the scenes.

There are benefits to this approach. Separating the document into various elements makes it easier to recover data from a corrupted file. The compression creates smaller documents than the current binary formats which can be emailed, copied or backed-up without additional compression as well as using less space on your hard drive.

Having an open published file format means that many programs can make use of the format and you’re not tied to a single software maker. It also means that clever programmers can poke around in documents directly.


If all that sounds familiar it’s because all the description in the preceding section applies to both the Office 2007 formats AND the ODF formats.

The two formats are remarkably similar in many respects. They are XML based and use standard compression techniques to make smaller files than we’re currently used to.

Many of the benefits of the Office XML / Office 2007 document formats also apply to the ODF format. As Microsoft promotes their new formats they are, to some extent, also promoting the virtues of the ISO approved rival.

The Office 2007 formats are not yet published but Microsoft has undertaken to do that. The company has also undertaken to permit use of the formats in other applications at no cost. There are licensing issues to do with conflicts between Microsoft’s corporate entitlements and the GNU GPL approach but that’s for lawyers to work out, not us humble mortals.


We won’t bore you with the technical details, suffice it to say that while both formats use a similar approach, at a deeper level they operate quite differently.

The main difference is the support for macros. The ODF formats don’t seem to have any – at least none that we can find. This means there’s much less risk of viruses being embedded into an ODF file but it also means there’s no cross-program automation support.

ODF has separate definitions for elements like charts, drawings, formulas and images which Office 2007 formats include within a document.

ODF also has the intriguing ‘Master Document’ concept which lets you bundle several documents into a single ‘uber’ document. For example you could put a document, spreadsheet and charts into a single file. In the short term this would keep related documents together. In the long term it makes it possible to develop a single program that works with different types of office documents seamlessly.


MS Office users can’t use ODF files directly, yet, but there are workarounds.

There is an Office plug-in for ODF documents that’s being developed by a team at SourceForge but it’s an early ‘alpha’ version and sometimes called a ‘proof of concept’ by the makers. Currently this tool adds an ‘Import OpenOffice document…’ item to the File menu in Word. There seems no way to save an ODF document.

OpenOpenOffice is another Office plug-in project  in the works.

The lack of an MS Office plug-in for ODF isn’t a major crisis, after all, the standard was only approved in the last month. Acceptance of ODF needs the ability for MS Office users (Office 2007, 2003 and XP at least) to easily read and write to the format. As we’ll discuss below there are good reasons why Microsoft itself would want early adoption of that ability inside MS Office.

For occasional use you can go to Docvert a free web service that offers to convert MS Word documents to ODF format.

Until some proper Office plug-ins come along one solution is to install the free v2 which can open and save both the ODF and Microsoft Office binary formats. You can open an ODF document and either Save As to a format that Office apps can understand or copy elements from a document in OpenOffice and paste them into the MS Office program.

Visioo-writer, despite the name, is only a viewer for OpenOffice and ODF documents.


It seems likely that the Office 2007 formats will become more widely used than ODF by simple weight of numbers. The technical arguments about each format will probably not be as important as market share and ease of use.

Microsoft will aggressively push Office 2007 and the new formats as well as provide support for Office 2003 and Office XP users. As is so often in the past, it is hard to resist that force of numbers plus convenience.

ODF’s status as the ISO accepted standard is a compelling argument for using ODF as the preferred document format in wider situations (such as government or companies dealing with the public). ODF is seen to be fully independent of any particular company, directly or indirectly. You could expect all the Office suites to support ODF within about a year, with the possible exception of Microsoft Office.

ODF has a place and presents Microsoft with a dilemma. Since there is no decent plug-in to support ODF documents in MS Office, some users will find it necessary to download a free Office suite like just so they can open and save ODF documents.

Microsoft really doesn’t want people trying OpenOffice or other rivals, customers might start wondering why they are paying Microsoft for functionality they can get elsewhere for much less or nothing.

Microsoft should swallow their corporate pride and provide in-built support for ODF, much in the same way that Office has opened and saved WordPerfect and Rich Text format documents for many years.

ODF support in MS Office would benefit Microsoft customers and reduce the risk of them ‘straying’ out of necessity. Microsoft argues that ODF isn’t widely accepted and their Office XML formats are better – but that didn’t stop them supporting the WordPerfect format when it suited them.

If Microsoft chooses not to support ODF in their Office products they will conspicuously not be able to work with an ISO standard.


Here’s a list of the ODF file extensions. If you remember that they start with .OD (for documents) .OT (for templates) then that’s probably enough to help you if an unknown file type arrives.


  • Text .odt
  • Database .odb
  • Spreadsheet .ods
  • Presentation .odp
  • Drawing .odg
  • Chart .odc
  • Formula .odf
  • Image .odi

Master Document .odm


  • Text .ott
  • Spreadsheet .ots
  • Presentation .otp
  • Drawing .otg
  • Chart template .otc
  • Formula template .otf
  • Image template .oti
  • Web page template .oth


For more information on OASIS the home of ODF

Wikipedia has a good summary.

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