December 7, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Microsoft's document gambit moves ahead

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Microsoft to standardize Office formats

November 21, 2005

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Yates said that Microsoft chose to lobby in Massachusetts to combat a government lobbying strategy taken up by IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Jeff Kaplan, the founder and director of Open ePolicy Group, which advocates for the use of "open technologies" in government, said that governments are seizing upon Microsoft alternatives out of self-interest.

"Governments are leading to move to ODF because they want control over data and to break their data lock-in. They see it as a matter of sovereignty, and they are uncomfortable with continued dependency on one company," Kaplan said. He added that the expected Ecma standard certification of Office Open XML will increase confusion in the marketplace.

Putting a face on XML
In addition to voting on Office Open XML as a standard, the Ecma general assembly will decide, when it meets in Zurich on Thursday, whether to send it to ISO for certification. That ISO process could be completed within nine months, Microsoft said. Earlier this month, OpenDocument was passed as an ISO standard--a certification that has far more significance to government customers worldwide than Ecma approval, Updegrove said.

Yet Microsoft views its standardization efforts as more than a simple attempt to make its software appealing to governments that favor standards-certified products.

Jean Paoli Jean Paoli

Having the document formats based on XML (extensible markup language) opens up possibilities for many different types of applications, which "put a face on XML," said Jean Paoli, senior director of XML architecture at Microsoft and one of the creators of the original XML standard.

For example, content management systems or workflow applications will be able to take the billions of Office documents in existence and exchange them with disparate back-end systems, he said.

"We developed the format in order to enable those scenarios which are precisely integration with other systems," Paoli said. "By definition, we needed technology to be stable, and that's why we went to a standards body."

During the year-long Ecma process, Microsoft and other participants, which included representatives from Novell and Apple Computer, made changes the initial Office Open XML specification to make Office documents work with different operating systems, Paoli said.

Novell, for example, will allow customers with systems running OpenOffice on Linux to read and save documents created in Microsoft Office by next year.

However, because Office has more advanced features than OpenOffice, making conversions of sophisticated Office spreadsheet and presentation documents will not be perfect, Novell's Steinman said.

Microsoft is sponsoring an open-source project to create converters that will allow Office users to read OpenDocument files. That project was done specifically in response to government customer requests, Yates said.

These converters are expected to be completed by the middle of next year. A plug-in to translate Word files to OpenDocument is slated for completion in January.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has released Office Open XML file converters for older versions of Office. But it indicated on Wednesday that Mac translation tools won't be ready until March or April of next year.

The race is on
Whether and how document format standardization will ultimately benefit Microsoft is still unclear. But opinions aren't lacking.

If the Office Open XML standard is used in very few products outside Microsoft Office, customers may migrate to OpenDocument because they have limited choices, argued Stephen Walli, a technology executive and former Microsoft employee involved in standards and open source.

Conversely, if Office Open XML becomes a common feature in products like OpenOffice, then Microsoft runs the risk of commoditizing its Office applications, he said.

"I think that Microsoft has exposed itself on Office 12" (the code-name for Office 2007), he said.

A recent survey by IDC of IT executives in Nordic countries found high interest in standards-based documents, with public sector respondents showing an affinity for OpenDocument and private industry respondents favoring Office Open XML.

"Although ODF is claiming a large number of supporting vendors and products, the footprint in the market of office products like StarOffice,, IBM Workplace and Google Docs is still not substantial. Microsoft Office is having a very large market share, and this will help driving Open XML into the market as a document standard," the research firm's report said.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft executives see clear benefits to standardization of documents--one of the company's several initiatives to improve interoperability. The software maker already supports multiple formats, and standards certifications will make that easier, noted Microsoft's Yates.

"In some ways, (after the expected standardization) things will get back to normal," he said. "People already share documents through PDF, HTML and .doc. But now, they'll use XML--that's the difference."

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