Google delivers an early Christmas gift: Google Drive support for ODF

Good things come to those who wait

Chris DiBona
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Google, in a surprise move, today announced support for ODF (Open Document Format) in its products.

I remember the days when I had to sheepishly asked people who wanted to share files with me to go back to .doc or .docx as none of the Google properties would talk to ODF files. That was quite embarrassing because I invested a lot of time in liberating those people from Microsoft's vendor-locked file formats.

When I met and interviewed Chris DiBona, the head of open source at Google, during LinuxCon last year, I raised the question of ODF support. His answer was ‘supply and demand’. According to him there was not enough demand for Google to support ODF.

Fair enough. But it was a Catch 22 situation. Google was talking about not seeing demand for a product that no one could use from within its ecosystem. Since Google didn't support ODF, folks like me were forced to either go back to Microsoft formats or ditch Google services.

Even if there was demand for ODF, the lack of support wasn’t a threat to Google’s business.

I believe Google could have actually created demand for ODF by making it the de-facto format for Google Drive. They chose not to do so and instead invested in Microsoft’s format to make it easier for Office users to migrate to Google services.

The tables turned when the UK government made ODF the default standard for government related work. If Google wanted to procure government contracts in the UK, and in the rest of the EU which is moving towards vendor neutral solutions, it needed ODF.

The UK didn’t merely create the demand for ODF support, it created a condition failing which Google would be locked out of government contracts. Just a week after ODF Plugfest where DiBona talked about ongoing work on ODF, the Google Drive team announced ODF support through their Google+ page:

We’ve been listening to your feedback, and we’re happy to say that we now offer support for importing all three major ODF (Open) file formats: .odt files for documents, .ods for spreadsheets, and .odp for presentations.

I checked my Linux desktop and Chromebook after today's announcement to find ODF playing well with Google products. Gmail gave the preview of the odt file and I was able to open and edit it in Google Drive.

odf drive

ODF files open fine in Gmail and Google Drive on desktop.

However, when I tried to open the same file on my Android phone, Gmail refused to show the preview. I downloaded the file and then uploaded to Google Drive, Docs wouldn't open the file calling it 'unknown type'.

odt android

Android can't handle ODF files.

The problem may lie in the inner workings of Google. During the PlugFest, DiBona explained that different components of Google products, such as file viewer, are being developed separately for Gmail and Docs within the company. So what may work with one Google product on one platform may not work on the same product on a different platform. That's exactly what I am experiencing here. I assume that ODF support will eventually trickle down to Android.

Going back to the desktop, much more work is needed to be done by Google to fully support ODF. There are still many things that it doesn't support – for example track changes, which my editor would be very happy to see.

I believe this is the beginning of Google's support of ODF and things will get better with time. If Google does want to sell Drive and Chromebooks to governments, it will have to offer better support for ODF.

It’s all about demand!

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