tools for document interoperability
This is the web diary for nfoWorks and realization of the Harmony Principles. Pursuing Harmony tracks nfoWorks research, analysis, specification, and implementation of tools for document interoperability. There is commentary on related activities that address conformance, interoperability, and harmonization of document formats.
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Technorati Tags: Officeshots.org, ODF, interoperability, document interchange, document fidelity, confirmable experience
The new Officeshots.org service received a fair amount of attention at the recent ODF Interoperability Plugfest. Taking a page from the “test your site with all browsers” tools that are available, Office Shots will take an uploaded ODF document and show how it renders in different ODF-supporting products. To deal with the problem of confirming appearance of the document back to the submitter, the rendering by each application is captured in PDF.
This is a fledgling service, currently in limited beta. It is sponsored by the same Dutch organizations that sponsored the ODF Plugfest.
The power of the service is its user-relevant confirmation of the fidelity with which a document of interest is rendered by different ODF-supporting software/platform combinations. It is an easy way for evaluators to verify whether their important documents are rendered successfully in interchange among ODF products. It also allows the subjective determination of success to be left in the hands of the users who know what qualifies as acceptable fidelity in each particular case.
One of the most-difficult situations in interchange of documents is when the receiver is seeing something materially different than what the sender (1) had in mind and (2) expects has been communicated. For the parties to communicate about a suspected difficulty, they need to use a “channel” that differs from the one that has apparently failed. Screen shots serve that purpose. PDF is also valuable in the case where a PDF can be extracted that accurately-enough reflects what is intended and/or what is being seen.
Office Shots provide a way to proactively check, either because a problem is suspected with a local rendition or to ensure that a document and the choice of implementation-supported features is treated consistently by a variety of other implementations/platforms.
One can imagine that, over time, we could see Office Shots support links for troubleshooting specific discrepancies, finding practices for avoiding many of them, and easy reporting of problems to development teams.
Office Shots promises to provide a terrific reality-based approach to confirming the interoperability of ODF implementations as far as presentation fidelity is concerned. This is also a first-line check on confirming difficulties with round-trip inter-product fidelity preservation. (Of course, if the goal is solely presentation fidelity, PDF and other final-form formats may be preferable, especially when long-term preservation is also a consideration.)
I look forward to the impetus that Office Shots will provide to user recognition of practical ODF interoperability considerations. I also think it will provide important stimulus and confirmation for developers who want to improve the interoperable use of their ODF-supporting software.
Beside the Officeshots.org site, there are other discussions of the project and its potential:
Technorati Tags: text-to-speech, W3C, Harmony Principles, interoperability, document rendering, document accessibility
Via the Cover Pages: XML Daily Newslink for 2008-10-14, I learn that the W3C has standards for speech-enabled/-enabling web applications. The addition announced today is the W3C Pronunciation Lexicon Specification (PLS) Standard. This is an accessibility as well as a convenience feature. PLS is intended to work with Text to Speech (TTS) and VoiceXML applications.
The PLS lexicon is an XML document and there is allowance for blended use with other namespaces. This suggests to me that there is prospective use in interchange of office-productivity documents for various purposes.
I don’t expect that this will fit into any foreseeable level of harmonized features. I am placing this marker because it may well feature in accessibility provisions at some point, even if accomplished via a public-profile agreement involving foreign elements.
The accessibility angle is an important one to keep an eye on for its interoperability, interchange, and preservation potential.
Technorati Tags: interoperability, IE8, web site construction, web standards, compatibility, conformance, document preservation, document formats
Be prepared for a dramatic shift in the reality of web-site browsing and the honoring of web-page standards. The pending release of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 is going to put the reality of web standards and their loose adherence in our faces. Although Internet Explorer is indicted as the archetypical contributor to disharmony on the web, Internet Explorer 8 is going to challenge all of us to deal with the reality of our mutual contribution to the current state of affairs.
Here is a lesson, probably many lessons, for document interoperability and the way that standards for document formats evolve and harmonize, or not, over time.
The Web as Clinical Science
The movement from loosely-standard pages and their browsing to strictly-standard pages and standards-mode browsing will illustrate every aspect of the same challenge for office-productivity documents and the office suites that process them.
Web pages are the experimental drosophilae of digital documents. All aspects of dynamic convergence on standards, themselves evolving, and the forces of divergence, are demonstrated clearly and rapidly. I expect it to take Internet generations for significant convergence, with no static level of standards adherence anywhere in sight. It took us almost 20 years to get to this point on the Web; I figure it will take at least five more to dig out of it far enough to claim that there is a standards-based web in existence and in practice. I'm optimistic, considering that HTML 5, the great stabilization, is not expected to achieve W3C Recommendation status until 2012.
No document-interoperability convergence effort is anywhere close to the promising situation of the web as Internet Explorer 8, HTML5 implementations, and other compatibility-savvy browsers roll out over the next several years. It is useful to use that situation to calibrate how convergence and interoperability could work for document interoperability. There are significant technical barriers. The non-technical barriers are the most daunting. That should be no surprise.
Versioning in Document Use
I've written on Orcmid's Lair about the IE 8.0 Disruption. This involves changes in Internet Explorer 8.0 by which web pages are rendered in standards-mode on the assumption that pages are conformant with applicable web standards. In the past, it was presumed that pages were loosely-standard and browsers, also loosely-standard, made a kind of best effort to present the page. The consequences have been explained marvelously in Joel Spolski's post on Martian Headsets.
We are similarly relying on document-format standards as a way to provide for many-to-many interchange and interoperability between different (implementations of versions of) document-format standards and different (implementations of versions of) processors of those digital documents. That means we have a version of the loosely-standard documents with loosely-standard processing problem. We can't be strictly standard because the standards can't (and definitely don't) have strict implementations at the moment; and there are many ways that specifications and implementations have been kept loose by design. Accompanying that looseness by design is the the simple fact of immaturity among the contending document-format standards for office applications, particularly as vehicles for interoperable applications.
For office-productivity documents as we know and love them, there are five, count 'em five "official standards."
The "Official" Public Standards of Office Documents
For Office Open XML Format (OOXML), there is the ECMA-376 specification of December 2006. There is also the ISO/IEC 29500:2008 Office Open XML File Formats standard once it is made available. IS 29500 will have some substantive differences from ECMA-376. We won't have a solid calibration of the differences until the IS 29500 specifications are available and subject to extensive review.
For the OpenDocument Format, there is the Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0 OASIS Standard issued 1 May 2005. There is also the ISO/IEC 26300:2006 Open Document For Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0 standard (also on the publicly-available listing). IS 26300 is for the same format as the OASIS v1.0 standard, but it is on a completely-separate standards progression. Appendix E.3 accounts for the differences of IS 26300 from the text of the May 2005 OASIS Standard. The first page of the IS 26300:2006 document (page 5 of the PDF) identifies its source as Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0 (Second Edition) Committee Specification 1, dated 19 July 2006, derived from document file OpenDocument-v1.0ed2-cs1.odt; this is not another OASIS Standard, however.
The second and latest OASIS Standard for ODF is Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.1 issued 2 February 2007. This document is derived from OpenDocument v1.0 (Second Edition) Committee Specification 1, the same specification that is the source of content for ISO/IEC 26300:2006. The changes made to arrive at ODF v1.1 from the v1.0 (Second Edition) committee specification are detailed in Appendix G.4. There are some mildly-breaking changes from ODF v1.0 to ODF v1.1, mostly of a clarification or correction nature. There are a few additional features that have no down-level counterparts in ODF v1.0.
A third OASIS Standard, ODF v1.2, is under development. The current drafts, using a very-different organization from v1.1, are available as pubic documents of the OASIS Open Document TC.
We can expect to see more versions of ODF and of OOXML at their various standards venues. We'll be watching here on nfoWorks as the situation becomes even more chaotic. Notice that this diversity ignores the variety of divergent implementations of the various specifications.
Format Versions that Live Forever
It is possible for one document-format specification to officially supplant another, with the older specification deprecated. That has not been done so far with any of the five-and-growing document-format specifications, any more than it has been done for most of the versions of HTML specifications that have been recommendations of the W3C (and IETF before the development track moved entirely to W3C).
For example, the last full-up specification for HTML, the HTML 4.01 W3C Recommendation of 24 December 1999, has this to say about its immediate predecessor: "This document obsoletes previous versions of HTML 4.0, although W3C will continue to make those specifications and their DTDs available at the W3C Web site." This was possible because HTML 4.0 was young and there were important defects that 4.01 cured.
The HTML 4.01 specification continues with the following recommendation: "W3C recommends that user agents and authors (and in particular, authoring tools) produce HTML 4.01 documents rather than HTML 4.0 documents. W3C recommends that authors produce HTML 4 documents instead of HTML 3.2 documents. For reasons of backward compatibility, W3C also recommends that tools interpreting HTML 4 continue to support HTML 3.2 [W3C Recommendation 14 January 1997] and HTML 2.0 [IETF rfc1866 November 1995 and the IETF-obsoleting rfc2854 June 2000] as well."
The XHTML branch of specifications, originally derived from HTML 4.01, were intended as the basis for a future generation.
Meanwhile, there has been work toward both XHTML 2 and HTML 5.0.
HTML 5.0 is currently intended to exist alongside XHTML 1.x and its newer arrangements while also absorbing XHTML 1.x to some degree (by having an XML form). The current HTML 5.0 draft specifies legacy processing (in its HTML-syntax form) for variations of over 60 HTML DOCTYPE DTD flavors, extending back to HTML 1.0 and other variants. The intention is to converge HTML and XHTML 1.x under a consistent HTML 5 processing model with only no-quirks, some-quirks, and quirks modes. This is also intended to end the variation and extension of HTML (not XHTML) by capturing <!DOCTYPE HTML> for its own and having a concrete HTML syntax that is fully-divorced from both SGML and XML. It is important to point out that HTML 5 is not going to eliminate the divergence that browser (user-agent) plug-in models, plug-in implementations and scripting systems (especially client side) bring to the mix.
Document-format versions are not easily abandoned. Even if production of a format is deprecated, consumption of the format may need to continue into the indefinite future, and certainly so long as emitters of deprecated formats have significant usage. The W3C progression of HTML is at a point where that is fully-recognized and being honored in reaching toward an HTML 5 plateau sometime in the next decade.
Considering this promising stabilization, when would I manage to change all of my web sites and blogs to clean HTML 5 pages? Not until I know that visits to those sites are only a small fraction of Internet Explorer versions prior to IE8 (or maybe IE9) and other browsers lacking full-up standards-mode processing. Fortunately, the HTML 5 specification-effort promises to show me exactly how to do that in a mechanical way. I am looking forward to automated assistance. In my case, I'll also have the benefit of my IE 8.0 mitigation effort. Other web sites may require other approaches, and user browser choice will involve important trade-offs for some time.
I am surprised by the number of people who operate multiple browsers. Although I operate multiple products for office applications these days, that's mostly to explore their interoperable use, not to ensure ability to interchange documents (well, not until I joined OASIS and the ODF TC). I've been a serial adopter of Internet Explorer versions since IE 2.0. As a typical late-adopter, I may finally branch out now just to have a better calibration of the migration to standards-based sites and browsers for them.
This is an important lesson for the management of the expanding variety of specifications of formats for office-application documents, formats of which HTML packagings are sometimes one of the flavors.
Reconciling office-application document-format versions does not promise to be so easy as the current effort to stabilize HTML for the web.
The Looseness of Document Specifications
Of course, OOXML and ODF are not close dialects off a single family tree, as HTML variants might be treated (and HTML 5 demonstrates, if successful). In addition, the current specifications are not for same-conformance, interchangeable-everywhere documents:
Prospects for Interoperable Convergence
We already have before us difficulties with interoperable convergence of individual progression of a single standard and its variety of implementation. This makes the prospect of harmonization between different standard formats rather murky.
Desktop office-application software has more promise with regard to application of Postel's Law, to be liberal in what is accepted and conservative in what is produced. Unfortunately, the current specifications do not require conservative, interoperable implementations; the current specifications are arguably antagonistic to such an achievement.
I suspect that this is an unintended consequence mixed with some inattention to what it takes for interoperability to be achievable.
It remains to see how our experience and understanding matures. We are at the beginning, not the finish. The journey may seem endless.
The process of IE 8.0 mitigation and preparation for a standards-mode approach to web browsing impacts this site and blog as well as every other web page I have ever posted (somewhere over 120MB worth and climbing).
I'm not going to say anything more about IE 8.0 mitigation and HTML harmonization here. The overall effort will be tracked in that category of Professor von Clueless posts; that's the place to follow along. The lesson for document interoperability is something that is definitely appropriate for Pursuing Harmony; there'll be much more to say about that.
Technorati Tags: interoperability, document formats, document processing, Harmony Principles, presentation conformance, conformance, ISO/IEC 24754
One problem for harmonization of document-format implementations in the case of ODF and OOXML is the degree to which those specifications may provide inadequate specification of how documents are to be presented in order for implementations to be adequately interoperable. This situation arises between implementations of the same format as well as between different document formats.
Along with establishing clarity on how much agreement in presentation is required, there is the small matter of being able to somehow confirm that an application achieves whatever that level of conformance and interoperability is.
As I suggested in "Interoperable ODF: Finding Ground Truth," there are many difficulties to be conquered in advancing from the current state of affairs to where there is reliable determination that implementations are substitutable in a particular interoperability setting.
We don't have good ways to even talk about the multiple, interlocking problems that lurk beneath the simple desire to have interchange of documents in standard formats "just work."
It would be helpful, for starters, to at least have a way to describe what a particular document-processing system does in rendering documents that it accepts. A checklist on the handling of particular features of an electronic document is also useful in determining conformance and interoperability guidance and, perhaps, eventual mechanical verification criteria.
The XML Daily Newslink for 2008-08-18 reports on a contribution that may be useful in this regard, the "First Edition of ISO/IEC 24754: Minimum Requirements for Specifying Document Rendering Systems." From the scope:
The Final Committee Draft (omitting the example in the informative appendix) is available as a 7-page, 74 kB PDF file.
Beside the announcement, here's what attracted my attention:
created 2008-08-13-18:06 -0700 (pdt)