What is a document? It started as a flat piece of beaten clay, onto which characters were scratched with a stick. 8000 years later it was found and after years of study, archaeologists concluded that it said: 'You owe me three goats”.
Through papyrus and parchment scrolls we arrived at mass production of paper and book printing in Europe in the 15th century. Our sense of the nature of a document is still derived from this previous revolution in information capture and distribution. When computers became commonplace as a tool to create documents, there was therefore a strong focus on applications to produce paper document as quickly and nicely as possible. The creation had become digital, but the final result was not fundamentally different from the first printed book in 1452.
Most word processors in use today cling to this concept. There are hundreds of functions for page numbering, footnotes and layout to achieve a legible final result - on paper. Many IT tools around the management and access of documents are directed to the concept of a digital document as a stack of paper. Ready to print for 'real' use. The modern ways of working together for various reasons no longer apply to a paper-oriented way of recording and distribution. Paper is static, local, and now much slower and more expensive to transport than bits. It is this combination of restrictions has led to new ways of creating documents where both the creative process and the end result is digital. A famous example is Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopaedia with millions of participants continually writing and rewriting about the latest insights in technology, science, history, culture or even the biography of Dutch folk singer Andre Hazes.
In this new form a document is a compilation of information at an agreed place online. The URL is the document.
Most editors show their age not only by focusing on paper, but also by focusing on the concept that documents provide a discrete all-in-one storage medium. Word processing began before computers could communicate naturally through networks, and that legacy continues to shape the concept of a digital document.
From the binary formats of Wordstar (.ws), via WordPerfect (.wpd) and Microsoft Office (.doc), we are now using XML-based formats such as ODF and OOXML. The original purpose of the ODF was to break the stranglehold of the Microsoft binary .doc format, which was changed regularly and was therefore was difficult to support on systems other than Microsoft itself. Of course, that was exactly the intention. Once you acquire market dominance, why would you be interested in whether other systems are compatible with you when this gives you the competitive edge and profit margins of 65%?
To my amazement yesterday I read this report of a workshop designed to make OpenOffice compatible with the proprietary version of Microsoft's OOXML file format. The operational wish for individual OpenOffice users to be compatible with .docx is understandable, as they are a minority in a landscape totally dominated by Microsoft Office, which now saves documents as .docx. If you choose not to use MS-office (for whatever reason) it can be a daunting task to save and read a document. Most users of word processors are unaware that, by using this format, they are making the lives of the minority difficult; they merrily continue to send out this digital asbestos.
For clarity, the .docx version of OOXML is not the same as the ISO version of OOXML - .docx is a proprietary file format, OOXML ISO is a standard. The certification of the ISO standard was itself nearly destroyed during the voting process by bribery and intimidation. The ISO standard has not been implemented by anyone yet, including Microsoft itself.
Solving problems of adoption of OpenOffice by pursuing the proprietary file formats of your opponent seems to me a disastrous path to go down. In the same way as .doc, the .docx format can be subtly changed with each version and servicepack 'upgrade' to avoid 100% compatibility. After all, actively tinkering with proprietary software to block alternatives not a new concept for Redmond.
Microsoft survives primarily on Windows and Office licences, even though it has doggedly been trying to conquer other markets such as mobile telephony. It would be rather naive to assume that such an organisation, with such a history, will sit back quietly while its cash cow is dismantled.
If the predictions about digital documents are true, it means we need new ways of working along with new tools. Page numbering and footnotes are irrelevant in hypertext in terms of the document-standard. Since the majority of documents produced by most users in most organisations are no longer than 1-3 pages and are usually using templates, a browser with plug-ins would be sufficient. This means that PCs are less important for the end users, who increasingly work just as well on a tablet. Tablets are very different to Pcs, but that is no barrier to rapid adoption. Contrary to popular claims, 'different' is not a problem if it is also sexy.
Aping your opponent is never a good idea. As a great strategist once said long ago (in a galaxy far away)::it's a trap!