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November 21, 2005

Microsoft plays Open Office standards defense

Microsoft Corp will submit the document format specifications beneath its Office 12 productivity suite to Ecma International for standardization, as an early move to head off the rival OpenDocument Format.

By CBR Staff Writer

The company said that it will submit Office Open XML specs to the standards group as a co-sponsor with 10 other companies, including Apple Computer Inc and Intel Corp, and that it will loosen its licensing agreements to make the formats more compatible with open source licenses.

The move is clearly a defensive reaction to recent momentum experienced by the OpenDocument format, ODF, which is backed by Microsoft competitor Sun Microsystems Inc and the open source community. ODF is supported primarily by the OpenOffice and StarOffice suites.

Most notably, the decision this fall by Massachusetts to standardize on ODF is believed to have put the greatest political and commercial pressure on Microsoft to open its formats.

With the realization that IT systems are here to stay, organizations are becoming more concerned with long-term compatibility of their critical data, and some put more faith in open community-driven specifications than they do proprietary commercial formats.

With Office document formats available as an open standard, customers will have even more confidence in their ability to store and manage data for the long term, Microsoft said in a statement.

Any member of Ecma will be able to join in on the standardization work, with the ultimate aim being to submit the final specs to the International Standards Organization for final ratification. ODF, by contrast, is developed in open source communities and ratified by OASIS.

The move means that Microsoft’s previous binary formats, denoted by file extensions such as .doc, .xls and .ppt, will be replaced by XML-based Office Open XML. Microsoft said it will make migration tools available so users can ensure backwards compatibility.

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While we can be under no illusions about which company has done the bulk of the technical work behind these new formats (it’s probably not BP or Barclays Capital, which are also co-sponsors), Microsoft does appear to be keen to have open source adoption.

Jean Paoli, Microsoft’s senior director of XML architecture, said in a statement that the new license for the Office Open XML specs would be open to anyone, including open source developers.

We are expanding the language of the current royalty-free license to specifically enable developers who work only with open source licensing to also be able to work with Office Open XML, he said. This will enable any customer or technology provider to use the file formats in its own systems without financial consideration to Microsoft.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft has got it right this time. The company has a track record of succumbing to its natural corporate instinct for protectionist terms in even its royalty-free licenses in the past, much to the ire of open source advocates.

The company currently has no plans to support ODF in Office 12 natively, but it is expected that third party plug-ins will be available for organizations wishing to support that format.

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