Microsoft opens Office formats

Microsoft Corp. plans to submit its Microsoft Office file formats to an international standards body, the company announced yesterday.

Though Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is heralding this action as a move toward adopting open interoperable document formats, industry observers have taken a wait-and-see stance toward the announcement.

The company will submit its Microsoft Office Open Extensible Markup Language document format to European Ecma International. The Open XML format will support the Word, Excel and PowerPoint components of Microsoft Office 12, the next release of the productivity suite to be released next year. Microsoft also announced that it will develop tools that can convert documents rendered in older versions of Office into the new format.

Microsoft's move follows the release of a widely debated technical reference model from Massachusetts, which calls for state offices to use the Open Document Format being developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. The Massachusetts CIO's office considered and dismissed Microsoft's own XML-based format, citing that it was not overseen by a vendor-neutral standards body.

Founded in 1961, the Ecma global standards body focuses on information technology, communications and consumer electronics hardware and software. The organization manages programming languages such as Eiffel and Microsoft's own C# (pronounced C sharp) language, as well as the Ultra Wideband standard.

According to a Microsoft Web page explaining the move, company officials are hoping that the open standard will allow organizations to archive documents for long-term retrieval, as well as foster development of other software applications that can use the format.
By publishing the specifications for opening and formatting a document, companies other than Microsoft can write software to display those documents in that format.

The Massachusetts CIO's office cited the need to archive documents for long periods of time as one of the reasons for going with the Open Document format.

The move could also allow outside parties to at least get a say in what should or should not be incorporated into the standard. As the Microsoft Web page notes, 'The committee that will ratify Office Open XML as an open standard is open to anyone that is a member of the Ecma standards body and wants to be part of the process.'

Will Rodger, director of public policy for the Open Source and Industry Alliance, said that the announcement has left the advocacy group with a number of unanswered questions.

'Companies will always say they have open standards, but in what ways will they be open?' he asked rhetorically. Can outside developers, including those without corporate backing, use the format without paying copyright or patent royalties? Will Microsoft itself use the standard for future versions of Microsoft Office, or will it extend functionality with additional proprietary features that will not be made open?

'We're just waiting and seeing,' Rodger said. 'What ways is it open? Do we have a reference implementation?'

Last year, the Washington-based Computer and Communications Industry Association noted that many of the advanced features offered by Microsoft Office were not captured in the XML artifacts, such as macros and copy protection measures. Because these features were not fully documented, the resulting documents could not be fully rendered outside of a Microsoft product. Rodger works as a spokesperson for this group as well.

Andy Updegrove, a partner in the legal firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston and editor of the blog, noted that earlier Microsoft licensing of its XML formats, though free, could obligate users of the format to seek permission from Microsoft to use the specification. This obligation could clash with the GNU General Public License, the license used by open-source developers. That license stated that developers did not have to consult with the holder of the intellectual property being used. As a result, the Microsoft format may not be able to be used in conjunction with GPL-licensed software.

The license'due to be released Wednesday on the Microsoft Office Web site'will determine whether the company is shifting its strategy for intellectual property to a more open model or if the announcement was made more for publicity reasons, Updegrove said.

Updegrove also questioned Microsoft's motivations for not adopting the Open Document Format itself.

'The really intriguing question is, What is the difference between Microsoft supporting the Open Document Format and other people supporting [Microsoft's] XML?' he asked. 'The answer is, at 60,000 feet, it has to be something. That's where a lot of the analysis should be spent.'

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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