Microsoft Bows to Pressure to Interoperate with ODF

The company is setting up an open-source project to create a series of tools that translate between the OpenXML and OpenDocument formats.

Microsoft is giving in to the unrelenting pressure to be more open, particularly with regard to its Office Open XML file format and interoperability with the Open Document Format alternative.

The company will announce July 6 that it has set up an open-source project to create a series of tools that allow translation between the OpenXML format and the ODF format, and which will be developed with partners.

The Open XML Translator project, as it is known, will be posted on SourceForge, the open-source software development Web site.

The goal is to allow open participation and the free use of the software, so the source code will be made available under the BSD license, Jean Paoli, the general manager for interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash., told eWEEK.

Microsoft created the project along with three of its partners: IT solution provider Clever Age, which is writing the code, and two ISVs, Aztecsoft, which is testing the code; and Dialogika, which is testing the code in the context of the specific tablets used by European governments internally.

Microsofts involvement with the project included setting it up, providing technical support and project management, and funding part of it, Paoli said.

The move comes hot on the heels of news that the OpenDocument Foundation planned to present Massachusetts with an Office plug-in that would allow Office users to open, render and save to ODF files, while also allowing translation of documents between Microsofts binary (.doc, .xls, .ppt) or XML formats and ODF.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the testing of an ODF plug-in for all versions of Microsoft Office dating back to Office 97.

Jason Matusow, Microsofts director of standards affairs, noted that Microsoft was not contributing code or providing architectural guidance for the Open XML Translator project.

"There is a balance that needs to be struck between the transparency and the direction the community wants to take a project. By doing it this way we are trying to capture the best of all worlds," he said in an interview.

"Predictable timelines, milestones, deliverables, documentation and testing are things that dont automatically happen. If you look at any of the big, successful open-source projects, they achieve commercial quality because there are commercial players behind them with funding and professional development," Matusow said.

There had also been no regulatory pressure on Microsoft to develop these translation tools, he said, adding that the discussion about interoperability had been going on in Europe for a number of years, "and we take our responsibilities and obligations very seriously on any of these topics of what happens with the government."

In other words, the motivation for the creation of these translation tools was "not about an overwhelming response from enterprises and other customers seeking ODF support," but rather to respond to governmental concerns about being able to communicate with constituents that might choose to make use of the ODF, Matusow said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifEarlier in 2006, the European Commission sent Microsoft a letter saying the company was still not complying with its antitrust order. Click here to read more.

Accoring to Paoli, the new translator tools developed under the project will essentially be installable software plug-ins. Users who have installed the tools to use with, for example, Microsoft Word, will then have two menu items, OpenODF and SaveODF, so they can read and write in ODF files, he said.

As OpenXML brought backward compatibility with documents created by Office users over the past 20 years, these new translation tools will also be backward-compatible with earlier versions of Office, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. "This is possible because the Open XML formats were designed to be backwards-compatible," he said.

The first translator being developed is a plug-in for Microsoft Word, and a prototype version of this will be posted on SourceForge on July 6.

The final version of the Word translation tool is expected to be available for free from the download site by the end of 2006. Add-ins for Excel and PowerPoint are expected in 2007.

Customers using earlier versions of Office will be able to use the translator via a free Compatibility Pack, the same way Microsoft provided the Open XML updates for earlier Office versions, Paoli said.

"This project is all about transparency, as there is no translator that is perfect. OpenXML and ODF are very different formats and some hard decisions are going to have to be made when translating from one format to another, like where we have OpenXML features that are not supported in ODF," he said.

However, the open-source community and the ODF community will be involved in making those decisions and making the translators even better, Paoli said, citing as an example the comprehensive number of Microsoft options for table borders versus the very simple table borders in the ODF.

For his part, Matusow said the project was not tied to any one technology and while it effectively linked into the interface of Office 2007, it was commercially friendly and any ISV could adopt it.

"If one format is put in on one side it will spit out the other format on the other side, in either direction, and that means ISVs or independent research projects can come and take this and make use of it. We want that transparency and the tools to be available to anyone," he said.

While there was no licensing conflict that prevented BSD code from being included in a project licensed under the GPL (GNU General Public License), "the challenge becomes that the GPL then trumps the other license on a going forward basis for that project," he said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the ins and outs of open-source licensing.

"We are aware that interoperability is as important to customers as security and reliability, which was why we established a a customer interoperability council last month," Matusow said.

Particularly in the public sector, Microsoft was hearing that those customers wanted to be able to exchange data effectively and wanted interoperability between its OpenXML format and the ODF, he said.

A spokesperson for the National Informatics Centre, which is spearheading the process of E-governance standards in India, said the NIC welcomed the move.

"Interoperability is a key priority of the government in the E-governance paradigm. Our ability to meet the needs of citizens will be greatly increased by the interoperability and integration of open, XML-based standards," he said.

"It also empowers citizens to use the software of their choice. So, we are very pleased to see Microsoft take a responsible and open, yet practical approach to our interoperability requirements," the spokesperson said.

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