Microsoft Opens Office File Formats

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2005-11-21

Microsoft Opens Office File Formats

Microsoft Corp. has decided to open up its Office file formats and has submitted the formats to be considered for recognition as a formal standard by Ecma International, which will develop the documentation and make it available to the industry.

A number of companies and organizations have stepped forward to co-sponsor the submission of the Microsoft Office Open XML document format technology to Ecma, including Apple Computer Inc., Barclays Capital of Barclays Bank Plc, BP Plc, the British Library, Intel Corp., Statoil ASA and Toshiba America Inc.

Following the controversial Massachusetts OpenDocument debate, the decision appears to be a direct move by Microsoft to prevent the potential loss of any further government and business contracts for Office.

Read more here about Massachusetts decision to mandate use of the OpenDocument format.

Opening the MS Office document format takes a step towards eventually ensuring that those customers who do not use Office will be able to work with Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents without having to buy the software.

However, Microsoft said it will take about 18 months before customers, competitors and developers are likely to be able to download detailed files from Ecma on how to create a Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Excel document.

Microsoft will thus make tools available to enable old documents to capitalize on the open standard format. 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, with many more vendors and tools from which to choose.

Alan Yates, the general manager of Microsofts Information Worker Strategy, said Microsofts commitment to the standard and the long-term future of the Office open document standard was reflected in the license that would accompany it.

"The new license that will accompany the Open XML format with the standards organization will go well beyond traditional standards licensing and will be very positive for the vast majority of developers, even open-source developers," he said.

"We have gone further with this license, explicitly to widen the net for developers. Basically, it is a broad promise from Microsoft not to sue anyone for use of the formats. So that kind of broad, yet simple, promise from Microsoft will last well into the future and will appeal to all developers," Yates said.

Click here to read David Courseys take on Microsofts open-format plans.

This would also make it easier for competing desktop application suites like Sun Microsystems Inc.s branded StarOffice and to be compatible with Office, he said.

The license will be posted to the Office XML Web site on Wednesday, along with additional information about the submission to Ecma International. With regard to the competing Ecma-approved Open Document Format for Office Applications standard, Yates said Microsofts standard would differ.

"You have to understand that the Open Document group wrote their specification to satisfy a certain number of customer requirements, and we have done the same. We have had a very different and much more ambitious set of requirements to meet. So we are meeting the requirements of backwards compatibility with all of the billions of documents that are in previous Office versions," he said.

"But we are also focused on the forward functionality and representing all of them in Office 12, in XML, and we have the ability in that product to integrate directly the XML data from customers information systems into and out of our Office format," he said.

Next Page: Open Document format promises longevity.

Open Document Format Promises


Yates said that despite there being multiple points differentiating Microsofts format from the Open Document format, "both of them are open and there will likely be a very rich ecosystem between them and providing converters between them. In the past, OpenOffice has already supported our Office formats."

According to Yates, the overriding goal of the move was to increase confidence that the marketplace as a whole would have in this new standard a foundation for documents.

He added, "We really do believe that once the information gets out that customers will have more confidence, developers of all kinds will see the merits of going to an open-standard document format like this, especially one that accommodates all of the existing Microsoft documents out there."

The move was important for customers who wanted greater control of the content and data in their documents, Yates said, enabling them to bring old documents forward into the open, XML-based future, improve business processes through the use of XML in documents, and give long-term storage and archival options for all those documents.

Click here to read the eWEEK Editorial Boards view on Massachusetts open document format policy.

"This move to standardization really gives them the confidence that they can move data around in the context of a document. So that is the ultimate goal that many of them are waking up to. This move also [affects] the billions of documents that customers already have out there and enables them to tap into this new level of functionality and enables many new scenarios around open documents," he said.

It also would give customers the confidence that they could store documents in a format that would be long-lasting and even permanent, along with the promise that there would be many tools available to support the document use, he said, adding that customers would "not be reliant on one product or one version of a previous product from the past in order to open up those documents."

If a user has a document in an earlier format, say from Office 97, that document can be converted to the format of a later product, like Office 2000, Office XP or the upcoming Office 12. Microsoft is also providing add-ons to update all of those products to this new format. "So, all of those old documents have a path to the new open, XML format, and thats just [using Microsoft software]," Yates said.

Asked when these downloadable tools would be available to customers, Yates said some were currently available to the Office 12 beta customers. Part of the timing of this announcement was driven by the availability of the Office 12 beta two weeks ago.

Read more about the Office 12 Beta 1 release here.

"So now the code is available in addition to the specifications, which have been available for quite some time. People can now start to play with the code, understand how things work and the nuts and bolts of the format," Yates said.

Offering the file formats as a standard would also enable many competing and complementary products to be able to use the formats the same way, he said: "That enables all of those different tools to work with the same information."

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