Standards body Ecma International accepted on Thursday Microsoft Corp.s application to produce a standard for office productivity applications that is compatible with Microsofts Office Open XML Formats.
“At the General Assembly meeting held in Nice on December 8, 2005, Ecma International has created Technical Committee 45 (TC45) to produce a formal standard for office productivity applications which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats, submitted by Microsoft,” Ecma International Secretary General, Jan van den Beld, said in a prepared statement.
“The aim is to enable the implementation of the standard by a wide set of tools and platforms in order to foster interoperability across office productivity applications and with line-of-business systems. The TC will also be responsible for the ongoing maintenance and evolution of the standard,” he said.
TC45 was set up at the request of Apple Computer Inc., Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Essilor, Intel Corp., NextPage Inc., Statoil ASA and Toshiba, all of which are co-sponsoring the initiative, Van den Beld added.
For his part, Alan Yates, the general manager of Microsofts Information Worker Strategy, said the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is “extremely pleased” that its Open XML file format submission had been accepted.
This “means customers and the industry are a major step forward toward preserved interoperability. We look forward to a continued open and productive process with Ecma and its members,” he said.
Microsofts move to a formal standard follows the controversial Massachusetts OpenDocument debate, and appears to be a direct move by the company to prevent the potential loss of any further government and business contracts for Office.
Microsoft also plans to post an updated question and answer document on the Ecma International standardization of the Open XML file format to its Web site shortly.
A Microsoft spokeswoman told Ziff Davis Internet News on Friday that the Q&A had been updated to address some of the common questions that the company had been hearing from partners and customers about the file formats.
The area that has been most controversial since Microsoft announced its plans for the standard, and the area that gets the most coverage in the Q&A, is Microsofts CNS (Covenant Not to Sue) licensing changes.
Ziff Davis Internet News received an advance copy of the updated Q&A, which answers the question of why Microsoft took a CNS approach by saying that “it was a simple, clear way to reassure a broad audience of developers and customers, within a rapidly changing licensing environment, that the formats could be used without constraint forever.”
The Q&A continues: “We looked at many different types of licensing approaches that would recognize the legitimacy of intellectual property but would make it clear that the intellectual property in the Open XML document formats would be available freely, now and forever.
“Given that this is a rapidly changing area and lay people sometimes have difficulty understanding terms, we wanted to create something simple and clear,” the Q&A said.
Following Suns Lead
Microsoft had also looked at Suns recent approach with the ODF (OpenDocument Format), an XML-based OASIS international office document standard used to store data from desktop applications, such as word processing, presentation and spreadsheet software.
It is meant to enable the free exchange of data between OpenDocument-compliant software packages.
“With minor changes to this for clarification, we felt that it was a simple, clear approach that would reassure customers, governments and developers that there would never be a barrier to working with the formats,” the updated Q&A said.
Interestingly, Microsoft invites greater scrutiny, saying that “we hope that this approach will continue to get close scrutiny and will gain positive long-term confidence across the industry as a way to insure that document formats are usable by all types of developers with different intellectual property licensing philosophies.”
With regard to Microsofts CNS approach, the Q&A document said there is now no longer a license that people need to sign up for and nothing needs to be referenced.
“Anyone is free to use the formats as they wish and do not need to make any mention or reference to Microsoft. Anyone can use or implement these formats to both read and write the formats with their technology, code, solution,” the Q&A said.
With regard to the transferability of solutions and compatibility with the GNU GPL (general public License), Microsoft stressed that anyone was now free to build a solution that worked with its formats.
Microsoft first released its Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas in late 2003. Then, in June this year, officials said they planned to make the new XML file formats the default in Office 12, due next year, available to anyone under a royalty-free license.
In an exclusive story, Ziff Davis Internet News then reported that that royalty-free license was incompatible with the GNU GPL and would thus prevent many free and open-source software projects from using the formats.
But Microsoft used the updated Q&A to explain that “the concerns raised with our previous license about attribution and sub-licensing are now eliminated. Because the GPL is not universally interpreted the same way by everyone, we cant give anyone a legal opinion about how our language relates to the GPL or other open-source software licenses.
“But we believe we have removed the principal objections that people found with our prior license in a very simple and clear way,” the document said.
While anyone was also free to work with a subset of the specifications and to create extensions to the specifications, there is a codicil.
“Subsets and supersets may create incompatibilities with other uses of the specifications and we want to provide some guidance on this topic in the future, but this will be guidance and not a mandate.
“The key is that this is an assurance that no one will be sued for using intellectual property in the specifications as they are written,” the document said.
While the CNS currently applies to just the Office 2003 specifications “because they are the only ones currently available that are complete,” as the up-to-date specifications are released to Ecma, they will be posted on the same Web site and Microsoft will apply the CNS to them, the Q&A said.