What is the Open Document Format?

The Open Document Format is a method of saving office-style documents in non-proprietary format. The goal of the Open Document Format is creating a long-term data storage format for documents, spreadsheets, databases and so on. This format specifies the way the information is saved inside the document, assuring that documents saved today will still be readable decades from now. This contrasts with proprietary methods, which could change every time a new version of a program comes out.

For the most part, the Open Document Format is focused on office documents. These are word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and other functions commonly found in an ‘office suite’ software package. The format is not a program itself; rather, it is a set of rules that other programs can use. This allows any office suite to implement the Open Document Format, even if it is not the formal save style.

The files created by the format follow a set naming rule for their extensions. The first two letters of the extension are always ‘od,’ standing for open document. A third letter designates what type of document the file is; for instance, ‘.ods’ for spreadsheet or ‘.odg’ for graphics files. These extensions are reserved for open document files; if the file is saved in a different format, it will use a different extension.

The core of the format is the Extensible Markup Language (XML). This language is a method of creating complex documents with little work on the creator’s part. In many ways, XML-based programs work like creating a webpage. A user adds information and the program converts the words and pictures into a scripted page. This is invisible to the user, but allows him to view complex arrangements without knowing how to write the script.

XML forms the backbone of most major office programs, but small variations in the way the XML is used makes each program save in different formats. As time goes on, those variations have created new and unique forms of XML. This complexity is great from the user’s standpoint since it gives him more options when creating documents. On the other hand, a document made in one program cannot fully function in another since the XML is different.

The concept of a universal document format sounds great, but it has some problems. One of the major difficulties is in product updates. If a program was using Open Document Format as its sole means of creating and saving documents, it would be unable to add new features to the program until the format implemented them. If this were to apply to existing office suites, most of them would actually lose many common features to comply with the format.