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What is OpenDocument?

Robert Grimmick
Robert Grimmick

OpenDocument is a free and open source computer file application for office-type documents, including text, spreadsheets, and charts. The format is based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and stresses openness, longevity and interoperability, making it an appealing choice for those looking to preserve and share digital documents. It has been approved as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and several governments worldwide have adopted the standard.

OpenDocument, more formally known as the Open Document Format for Office Applications, supports electronic documents containing word processing, slide-show presentations, spreadsheets, and graphics. Unlike many other computer file formats, the OpenDocument format (ODF) is free-of-charge and open to all. This means that software vendors can add support for ODF without paying royalties or license fees. Many programs now natively support ODF, and plug-ins are available for those that do not. The technical specifications for the format are also publicly available, making it easier for developers to support, and ensuring the format won’t disappear if any one company or organization is disbanded.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Technical specifications for ODF are based on XML, a standard that defines methods of identifying types of structures within a document. The use of an XML-based file format is advantageous for several reasons. Existing standards can often be reused, and the XML tag-based approach to structure makes conversion between file formats relatively simple. As software and technology evolve, support for new types of ODF files can be added without creating new file formats or rendering older files obsolete.

The OpenDocument format was also designed with longevity in mind. Other office-type file formats designed by software vendors have been subject to obsolescence or abandonment. For example, some of the most popular word processing applications of the 1980s and 1990s have gone unsupported for many years and are very difficult to install on modern computers. By separating the file format from the application, OpenDocument’s creators and proponents hope to create a lasting digital format that survives market changes and technological shifts.

In 2006, OpenDocument was officially approved as an international standard by the ISO. Several governments and organizations have subsequently adopted the format as either a mandatory or optional format. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) adopted the standard in 2008 and mandated that all member countries support it. Belgium, Japan, and the Netherlands require ODF to be used when information is exchanged between government entities. Many other governments have adopted ODF as a recommended standard to be used when possible.

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