Streamlining your documents with Open Office XML

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Streamlining your documents with Open Office XML

OPINION - Electronic documents are at the centre of every modern organisation, capturing critical business information for use now and in the future.

While each business controls their own information, technology companies have the responsibility to ensure that different people in different businesses can connect and share information in an easy and accessible manner. This is where the notion of a unified standard for document portability comes into play.

XML is a key enabler for data sharing and, by association, document portability and business data integration and management. As early as 2000, XML was integrated into applications such as Microsoft Office as part of the HTML file format to represent features that did not exist in the HTML standard at the time, such as metadata and vector graphics.

However, its redevelopment as an open standard – known as Ecma Open Office XML (OOXML) – provides significant opportunity for companies such as Microsoft to improve file format interoperability with servers and applications for end users. It also provides customers with a choice of formats.

The current OOXML specification is the result of 12 months of development by a technical committee overseen by Ecma International, a leading standards body. The technical committee represented a wide range of interests, including Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Novell and Toshiba, government institutions that archive documents (the British Library and the US Library of Congress) and top-tier customers considered to be IT “power users”, such as BP, Statoil, Barclays Capital and Essilor.

(Ecma International was previously known as the European Computer Manufacturers’ Association, but changed its name in 1994 in response to the increasing internationalisation of its standardisation activities.)

The Ecma OOXML standard allows for streamlined document portability and retrieval, aiding organisations to more easily store, restructure, aggregate and re-use documents in new and dynamic ways. It is now before the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) for ratification.

ISO ratification is considered critical to widespread adoption of technologies, particularly in the government sector where it is often a mandated requirement for agencies to accept only communications presented in ISO-approved formats.

How does it work?

In contrast with traditional binary file formats, data within an Office XML-based document – for example, comments, charts, images, embedded code or metadata – is segmented and stored in different components within the file. This modular architecture enables developers – or servers and applications – to manually or automatically access specific contents within files without having to parse entire documents.

For example, OOXML can help protect users from accidentally sharing data inappropriately. Inappropriate data might be in the form of personally identifiable information (PII) stored within a document, or tracked changes, comments, and annotations so marked that they should not leave the department or organisation.

With Ecma OOXML, organisations can programmatically remove both types of information directly without having to scour the entire document. Additional benefits of being able to manage documents programmatically include the capability to set custom document properties such as colour scales or to update a corporate logo on all documents on a particular server without manual intervention.

OOXML also presents a significant benefit in terms of document storage. Each of the modular components in the file structure is compressed using standard ZIP compression technology. In addition to the compression of each document segment, the entire document is then compressed. As a result, the size of Microsoft Office documents are on average 25 per cent smaller, and at times up to 75 per cent, compared to traditional file formats.

OOXML file formats are the default file formats in Microsoft Office Excel 2007, Microsoft Office Word 2007, and Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007. A compatibility pack is available to ensure users can open and save Office Open XML Formats in Microsoft Office 2003 programs, Microsoft Office XP programs, or Microsoft Office 2000 programs.

Ecma technical committee member, BP, is one of many companies to have welcomed the standardisation of Office file formats.

“As with many complex organisations, ours runs on documents; documents for regulatory reasons, for analytical purposes, for communications, for internal management, for projects, for many things,” said BP Integrated Supply and Trading CIO, Simon J Orebi Gann.

“Digital documents are much like paper documents. They proliferate and are hard to manage, track, dissect, control, store and ultimately, to use. This standardisation of the Microsoft OOXML formats is a promising development that over time will clearly give us more control over our work.”

The Ecma Open XML Formats introduce a number of benefits that help not only developers and the solutions they build, but also individual users and organisations of all sizes. For example, information that individuals create or capture on their desktops can be connected directly to key business processes via OOXML, streamlining the management of those processes and reducing the need to re-key information in disparate systems.

Likewise, OOXML can unlock information currently stored in back-end systems, which can then be processed and re-purposed in the Microsoft Office applications with which people are already familiar – or indeed in any XML processing program. The new formats are also designed to provide long-term robustness and accessibility, so developers no longer need to rely on particular software applications for access to the document contents.

One of the biggest advantages of the Ecma OOXML format is its capacity to allow workers to access data from various documents without opening individual files, and to allow workers to use that information in new ways.

Mass adoption

Microsoft’s approach echoes a larger movement toward the adoption of XML and other standards across the IT industry. The move towards open standards such as Ecma OOXML is also facilitating for the first time the separation of content and presentation, making data reusable in many different contexts. In simple terms, this means users can edit and repurpose the presentation of information without changing the underlying data.

In document formats, organisations globally have said loud and clear that they want interoperability, choice and innovation. Standardisation of Ecma OOXML formats helps to facilitate third party development, reduce development and integration costs and foster innovation.

Beyond open standards for document formats, the IT industry is now focusing its attention on standards for security, identity management, web services and virtualisation, ensuring interoperability solutions will continue to meet the growing needs of organisations across the globe.
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