Office Files Will Be Open

Microsoft to submit XML format to ECMA.

Microsoft Corp. will finally make its Office file formats open to all.

The Redmond, Wash., software company next month will submit the Microsoft Office Open XML Format technology for consideration as a formal standard by Ecma International, which will develop the documentation and make it available to the industry.

Once the standard is approved by Geneva-based Ecma, it will be submitted to the International Organization for Standardization, also in Geneva.

Along with the submission comes a new license, or covenant, that guarantees that users of the formats will not be prosecuted, Alan Yates, general manager of Microsofts Information Worker Strategy, told eWEEK.

Microsofts decision to open its Office file formats reflects mounting pressure from entities such as the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which chose the competing OpenDocument file format—a specification that defines how Office documents are stored and shared—as well as from the European Commission, which has been encouraging vendors to adopt open standards for Office documents and ensure their products are interoperable.

IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., and Sun Microsystems Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., have already taken action and are ratcheting up the pressure on Microsoft by considering forming a foundation to increase the adoption of the OpenDocument format.

Although Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer for Sun, said Microsofts plans to submit file formats for its new Office "12" applications to Ecma and the ISO was a welcome development, he said it "may have a long way to go to meet the minimum standards that governments, open-source communities and the wider industry have adopted in Microsofts absence. But Sun is pleased to see Microsofts openness to the deployment of a real standard."

However, Yates said Microsofts commitment to the long-term future of the Office open document standard was reflected in the license that would accompany it. "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. That will last well into the future and will appeal to all developers," he said.

This latest Microsoft move takes a step toward ensuring that those customers that do not use Office will be able to open and work with Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents without having to buy that software. However, it is expected to be 12 to 18 months before detailed files are available from Ecma on how to create a Word, a PowerPoint or an Excel document.

Some developers, such as Jason Perlow, a senior technical architect for open-source solutions at Unisys Corp., were cautiously optimistic about the move.

"It is a huge boost to users and developers of open-source productivity applications and a critical catalyst for speeding adoption of Linux desktops and cross-platform applications. Short of Microsoft making Windows itself open-source, this is probably the single most important contribution to open standards and free and open-source software that Microsoft has ever made, even if this was not its intention and was a result of pressure from the EC and large government customers," said Perlow in Tenafly, N.J.