Profoss / Events / June 2008-OpenOffice / Speakers / Machtelt Garrels / Machtelt Garrels interview

Machtelt Garrels interview

You are a co-founder of the OpenDoc Society Belgium. What are the reasons of your involvement?

OpenDoc Society is actually a Dutch initiative. As I work a lot with our Northern neighbours, I was in close contact with the founders there. They thought it would be a good idea to give the organization an international character by starting a Belgian branch right away at the time when the Dutch branch was started. It was obvious to them that I, being a FLOSS advocate for over 15 years now, would lead the Belgian branch.

Are companies and professionals really concerned by the openness of the format they store their data in?

This is a good time for the promotion of Open Standards. Companies, professionals but also common people start to sense that there is a problem, eventhough they do not immediately consider the open solution: Microsoft announced that they would dump their old file formats, and the new MS Office stores data in .docx format and such, which can not be read on older systems. So there is this awareness currenlty developing among all MS Office users. As users are becoming sensitive to the problem, we can seize the moment and roll in the open solutions.

The OpenDoc Society promotes the standard Open Document Format. What about Office OpenXML, the XML format used by Microsoft Office, and that controversially was accepted as a standard by ISO?

OOXML was originally proposed as an ECMA standard to document older MS file formats - a strange reason to propose a standard. As ODF was accepted as an ISO standard and Microsoft realized that it would be difficult to implement in MS Office (though not impossible), while dozens of other closed and open source applications already supported the ODF format, they bullied national standards organizations into accepting OOXML as a second ISO standard for sharing office documents, so as not to lose their monopoly position in the desktop office market.


However, the OOXML standard is not complete, it leaves too much possibilities for changes and misinterpretation, and having only one (incomplete) implementation, namely MS Office, it can hardly be considered a standard. For this reason, and also as long as it is not backward compatible with previous standards, in casu ODF, our Federal government will not use OOXML, which I think is a sensible decision. Organizations that decide to use OOXML after all, will face the same problems as plumbers using at once the metric and the empirical system: you need more tools to handle different standard sizes of screws, tube diameters etc., mistakes are bound to happen, you will lose time because you forgot to bring the right tool for the job, and so on. And most important: you will exclude yourself from working with other organizations transparantly, because your system is too difficult.

You'll talk about how people can avoid annoyances when migrating to What's the reason for those annoyances? The change the user have to go through or the fact that OOo would be less capable as an Office Suite?

On the contrary. likely has more features than existing office suites.

Most of the problems that I have seen are totally unrelated to or to ODF. Rather, people tend to use their programs in an unappropriate way, causing logical systems like computer programs to interpret their documents in a so-called "wrong" way.

Examples are unappropriate use of line breaks when items like chapter titles need to appear on a new page, or user-defined line spacing where it is not necessary. Documents containing these abuses will look strange when converted to ODF or when opened in

There is only one solution to this problem: training. Some people consider this to be an additional cost, that would not occur when switching to the newest version of MS Office. This is of course nonsense: the new MS Office is so different from all the previous ones, that here, too, training is needed in order to give your users confidence.

How is ODF's acceptance growing in professional environments?

As I said, it is a good time for Open Standards. While lots of people still have some "cold water fear" and would rather wait until the last moment, others take their chances and have completed successful migrations. Organizations dealing with archives see the use of ODF as a timeless and future-proof format. Lots of organizations made the calculation and saw the profit behind the inital investment needed to switch to an open IT environment.

Can you give us some example of companies or organisations that standardised on ODF, and why?

  • Sint-Joost-ten-Node: when using traditional software for switching from a paper-based administartion to a digital one, there would only be enough budget to give half of the public servants a computer. Using low-budget computers, Linux and, every employee could be given a workstation.
  • OVAM: already 5 years ago, they decided not to acquire any software solutions that stood in the way of their open standards policy. When deciding on a content management system/document generation system, they could not find any commercial solutions fitting this policy, so they developed their own system based on, among other open standards, the XML schema of ODF.
  • Archives of the City of Antwerp: ODF is future proof and used for those documents where only the content is important, as ODF does not guarantee representation of the content. If representation is important, other open standards are used, such as TIFF and PDF/A.
  • The Belgian FOD's, Federal Government Services: for document exchange between services, ODF is the standard. Pilot projects are also running at the FOD Finance and FOD Justice to use ODF internally.