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More details on the Microsoft Office ODF translator

Last week, Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., announced the Open XML Translator project, an effort to build a series of plug-ins to convert Microsoft Office documents to the Open Document Format. And, as with any debate as spirited as the one between Microsoft and the ODF community, the story was distorted in all sorts of ways by an overeager press.

David Berlind, executive editor of ZDNet, was one of the first to point out that, contrary to press headlines, Microsoft was only supportive of the translator effort, which was actually largely being developed by outside parties. Simon Phipps, the ever-outspoken open source evangelist for Sun Microsystems Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., had quickly noted that the first plug in offered (downloadable at SourceForge) only offered users the ability read ODF documents, and that you could not use ODF as the default file format for saving documents.

As we assembled our own story on the ODF plug-ins, we contacted Microsoft to get some more details about the project. How will these plug-ins work, exactly? When will they be ready? Stuff like that. Since our deadline would be nigh upon us, we sent over the questions by e-mail, and Jason Matusow, director of standards affairs for Microsoft, graciously responded. While some of the details will appear in the story, we thought we'd pass on the whole Q&A for those closely following this issue:

GCN: Specifically how is Microsoft supporting this project?

Matusow: Microsoft is providing both funding and architectural guidance for this project. This should strike a healthy balance between the transparency and flexibility of a community-based project while delivering the rigor of milestones and high-quality testing that large organizations demand of their software solutions.

GCN: To confirm, you will not be offering technical support for these translators for your customers?

Matusow: Since it is an open source project, bugs will be submitted and prioritized by those working on the project. Also, the community who is closely engaged will provide support similar to all successful [open source software] projects. Additionally, this also creates an opportunity for many of our partners who specialize in document management services.

GCN: To confirm, The ODF translator will not be bundled in the Microsoft Office suite itself, correct?

Matusow: Correct. We are building an interoperability add-in for Office 2007 that provides easy access to this technology as well as PDF and XPS formats. We are also providing compatibility packs for some older versions of Office that will enable this tool to be accessible to people with those products as well.

GCN: How is the 'new menu option' different from an entry in 'the Save-As' feature?

Matusow: The tool adds an ODF option to the File Menu. Stephen McGibbon's blog gives a good visual explanation of the new menu option.

GCN: At this time, are there any plans of a plug-in that will save documents under the 'Save As' menu item?

Matusow: Yes, we will provide a 'Save As ODF.' That is the point of the tool. In its prototype form, it provides only read capabilities, but by completion it will provide write functionality as well.

GCN: Can you give examples of what would be lost by translating them from Open XML into ODF? [Microsoft press announcements stated that documents converted from the Microsoft's native Open XML file formats into ODF 'may not result in perfect document fidelity because of format and product differences.']

Matusow: Open XML and ODF provide different capabilities. Much like translating French into English where some idioms or slang terms may not have a direct translation'someone translating can make assumptions or interpretations in order to convey the same meaning. Open XML and ODF were designed to meet very different customer requirements, and their architecture reflects those differences.

The Open XML formats are unique in their compatibility and fidelity to billions of Office documents, accessibility support for disabled workers, performance and flexibility to empower organizations to access and integrate their own XML data with the documents they use every day.

In contrast, ODF focuses on different requirements and is now being modified in OASIS subcommittees to fill key gaps such as spreadsheet formula and accessibility support.

Any time translation occurs between different formats with different features, and especially when one format is more functional, things can become irrelevant, lost, or changed in the translation. For example, Microsoft notifies users when down-converting from Open XML to older binary formats, that features will be degraded. This is no different. Users need to know what is happening to their document. By developing the translation tools through an open source project, we will be able to incorporate feedback from Open XML and ODF advocates alike on all the tradeoffs and decisions.

GCN: I presume that other plug-ins for Excel and PowerPoint will be forthcoming as well?

Matusow: Yes. We are optimistic that we will be able to deliver a final version of the translator for Excel and PowerPoint early next year.

GCN: Later this year, this plug-in will offer the capability to write files in ODF, rather than just read them, correct?

Matusow: Today, the prototype is read-only, but read and write capabilities are being built as part of this project. While quality is the first concern of the work we are commissioning of our testing partners, we are optimistic that we will be able to deliver a final version of the first translator ' for Word 2007 ' later this year, and other translators (for Excel and PowerPoint) early next year.

GCN: Will you support efforts for plug-ins for older versions of Office as well?

Matusow: Older documents can be brought forward into Open XML using the conversion tools that come with Office for that purpose. We will enable this technology as a downloadable add-in to Office 2007 and we will also enable the earlier versions of Office to use the translator via information in the Compatibility Pack, the same place we provide the Open XML updates for earlier Office versions.

--Posted by Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Jul 12, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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