In spite of ongoing criticism for not being committed enough to open standards and specifications, Microsoft and its partners have finished work on the Open XML Translator.
The open-source Translator, which is an add-on to Microsoft Word, will be available for download and use starting Feb. 2 at no cost.
Microsoft first announced last July that it had set up the Translator project on SourceForge so as to create a series of tools that allow translation between the Open Document Format and its Open XML file format, the source code for which would be made available under the BSD license.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software company also plans to announce the second phase of the project on Feb. 2, which includes developing translators for Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentations.
These moves come even though Microsoft faces ongoing criticism from competitors and the ODF Alliance, an advocacy group of vendors, academic groups and technical organizations in more than 40 countries.
Marino Marcich, the Alliances managing director, previously told eWEEK that the Translator is only a “first baby step” as the installable software plug-ins created under the project are “really only a bridge, a stopgap measure that will probably not be acceptable to governments around the world over the long term. Plug-ins simply dont give the benefits of open file formats and standards.”
Microsoft also faces scrutiny over claims by a group of competitors who say the company is perpetuating practices found illegal in the European Union nearly three years ago and that the Open XML platform file format is designed to run seamlessly only on the Microsoft Office platform.
Jean Paoli, the general manager for interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft, told eWEEK in an interview that the reality was that Office users could now download and install the Translator and then open and save ODF files.
“We are also going to do the same thing for Excel and PowerPoint. Thats the reality here. The technology is so good that Novell is going to use it in their version of OpenOffice. At the end of the day thats called interoperability between two office suites,” he said.
Jason Matusow, Microsofts director of corporate standards, also told eWEEK that one of the design goals of the Translator was to make it independent of Microsofts technology. That would allow ISVs to include the Translator in their solutions for customers.
“The market demand is truly for interoperability and choice, and that is what this does. There have been a string of demands for us to take specific actions, and we have taken those on an ongoing basis,” he said.
Some European customers like Michele Balbi, the president of Italian system integrator Teorema Engineering Group, agree. “The translator project is the kind of support customers expect and deserve. It allows a company like ours to integrate solutions more easily with the interoperability requirements of those of our customers that have an international presence and responsibility.”
The Translator supports Office 2007, Office XP and Office 2003, while previous versions are already supported by Microsoft add-ons that enable reading of, and writing to, the Open XML Format, Paoli said, noting that a tool also exists for users to bulk update their older documents.
Asked by eWEEK if there were any older documents that could not be saved in the format, Paoli said he was not aware of any, noting that when plugged into Microsoft Word, the Translator gives customers the option of opening and saving documents in the ODF rather than the native Open XML file format.
The Translator, which is available in English but also localized in French, Dutch, German and Polish, may also be plugged into competing word processing programs that use ODF as the default format to open and save documents in Open XML, he said.
The Translator project is among the 30 most active on SourceForge and has been downloaded more than 50,000 times, Paoli said, adding that while he is unaware of any code having been written by anyone from the open-source community, many community members have made technical suggestions, as well as found and reported bugs.
“This release is further evidence of our commitment to interoperability. The Translator project was conducted in the open, there were regular releases of the updated code, allowing everyone to participate and comment on it. A beta of the Translator, both in read and write, was also released on SourceForge last summer,” Paoli said.
Asked about how seamless the experience would be for users, Paoli cautioned that “at the end of the day the formats are very different. Their designs are very different and their functionality levels are different. So, of course, there are scenarios that will work better than others.”
For example, if a user starts with an ODF format, which is not full-featured, and they then open the document in Office “with almost no problems,” they can then change it, he said, as long as those changes were within the features supported by ODF. But, if they started to use some of the complex Word features, there would “of course not be fidelity at the end.”
But the open nature of the project meant that developers could now see what was missing in ODF and then work to improve this, Paoli said, noting that the ODF standard was currently taking place.
For his part, Matusow said that Microsoft fully expected the Translator to provide significant input for the ODF as to where the fidelity of the format needs to be improved, given that it will highlight the shortcomings and differences between the two formats.
Standardization was also a big part of the discussion, he said, noting that Ecma International had voted last December to approve Ecma 376, making Open XML an industry standard. It was also now being considered for approval by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization), he said.
Matusow then took aim at IBM, the sole dissenter when the standard was up for a vote at Ecma, saying the company continued to contradict its commitment to encourage innovation in the open-source community.
“Yet, in a situation where we are now putting forward a way to build bridges and enable these things, clearly product competition now comes to the fore and Microsofts product is in competition with Workplace or other ODF-based elements. But we are going to continue to look for ways to build bridges and work with competing companies and find resolutions to these issues,” he said.
Given that IBM was among the many voices asking Microsoft to standardize the formats it was using, “this trajectory is exactly what they were asking for: us to take it to a standards body and have it become a standard. But, clearly, this doesnt jive with their current commercial goals around not only the products they are delivering, but also in the services space, where it behooves them to have a more complex environment, not a less complex one,” Matusow said.
The second phase of the project, developing translators for Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, will again be developed with three partners: IT solution provider Clever Age, which will write the code; and ISVs Aztecsoft, which will test the code; and Dialogika, which will test the code in the context of the specific tablets used by European governments internally.
This phase, which will begin in February, will have the same open model and license and will also be posted to SourceForge, Paoli said. Customer technology previews will be posted to SourceForge starting in May, with the final versions scheduled to be available in November.
“We will be using a lot of the learning and portions of the actual software that has already been developed for the document translator. This next phase will also ensure that the three components in the specification are covered: documents, spreadsheets and presentation,” Paoli said.