Microsoft Corp. has confirmed that it will maintain file-level compatibility between its Windows and Mac office products after the introduction of new XML-based file formats in Office 12.
In a posting on his blog, Rick Schaut, software engineer with Microsofts Mac Business Unit, aka Mac BU, said Mac Office 12 would support the new formats, and Microsoft would also provide converters for both Office X and Office 2004.
Although Schaut did not comment on the exact release date for Office 12 for Mac, he revealed that it would ship sometime after the equivalent Windows version, which, it is believed, will make an appearance in the first half of 2006. This is likely to mean Mac Office 12 will debut by the end of 2006 at the latest.
There is no official word on whether Microsoft will release file converters for Office 2004 and Office X when it releases Windows Office 12, or if Mac users will have to wait until later for support for XML-based files.
According to Schaut, development of XML support in Office 12 for Mac is proceeding well. "At this time, I can tell you that Mac Word 12 currently speaks XML almost as well as Win[dows] Word 2003. I cant speak for either Excel or PowerPoint," he said.
XML support is being simultaneously implemented across both Mac and Windows Office versions, but the Mac team is implementing support for the file formats by taking snapshots of Windows code, which are then integrated into the Mac code base.
This marks a major change in the way that Microsoft develops its Mac version of Office. Previously, the company allowed each version to effectively leapfrog the other, rather than tying the products release dates to each other. This has meant that features from the Mac have found their way into the next version of Windows Office, and vice versa, effectively allowing the company to cherry-pick successful features from its Mac version for future Windows versions.
However, because of the need to preserve file-format compatibility between the two versions, the release of the next version of Office for Mac has effectively become tied to that of Office 12 for Windows. In a statement, Microsoft confirmed that Schauts post was correct, and emphasised the importance of cross-platform compatibility.
"Mac BU continues to partner closely with Windows Office to ensure seamless cross-platform compatibility. The Mac BU will support the new file formats and work to enable forward compatibility with future Office releases," company officials said.
The release of the new file formats will also mean that third parties that need to maintain support for Office file formats— including Apple Computer Inc., with its iWork and AppleWorks suites—will need to update their applications. Microsoft plans to publish the XML formats and make them available under a royalty-free license, similar to the one used for the current Office 2003 document formats.
Microsoft has yet to decide if Office 12 for Mac will be limited to the most recent release of Mac OS X, 10.4, aka Tiger, or if it will be backwards compatible with older versions. Although limitations in the XML support in Mac OS X 10.3 and earlier versions means that Tiger would be the easiest platform to build Office for, Schaut told Ziff Davis Internet News that the decision about which platforms to target "hasnt been made yet."