Microsoft bends on OpenDocument

The software giant will sponsor an open-source project to create a converter between Open Office XML and OpenDocument file formats.

Microsoft said it plans to sponsor an open-source project to create software that will convert Office documents to OpenDocument, a rival format gaining ground, particularly among governments.

The software giant on Thursday launched the Open XML Translator project on SourceForge.net, a popular site for hosting code-sharing projects. The software will be available under the BSD open-source license.

The software, developed by a France-based Microsoft partner, will allow people to use Microsoft Office to open and save documents in the OpenDocument, or ODF, format.

Although Microsoft Office document formats are the most widely used, OpenDocument has emerged as an alternative with significant vendor backing and with high-profile government customers in Massachusetts and Belgium . OpenDocument is an XML-based format developed under the standards group OASIS, or the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

The decision to manage the project is something of a reversal for Microsoft. Until now, it said that it would not natively support OpenDocument in Office, citing lack of demand. Instead, it would rely instead on third parties for format translators.

Microsoft isn't seeing a sharp uptick in demand for OpenDocument, but government customers urged the company to provide interoperability between Microsoft's own forthcoming XML Office formats and OpenDocument, said Tom Robertson, the general manager of interoperability and standards at the software giant.

"We're hearing that (customers) don't want homogeneity--they want diversity; they want translatability," Robertson said. "And some customers are saying they would like us to focus on this to a certain extent, to make sure the product is high quality."

Conversion schedule
On Thursday, the Open XML Translator project intends to release a prototype of software that will change Word documents to OpenDocument, and vice versa. The goal is to have a Word plug-in for Office 2007 by the end of this year and translators for Excel and PowerPoint next year, said Jean Paoli, the general manager of interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft.

The conversions will be based on Microsoft's Open Office XML , the XML-based file formats that will be the default setting in Office 2007, due next year. Microsoft is seeking to make Open Office XML an Ecma International standard by the end of this year, Paoli said.

Because Open Office XML is backward-compatible, the translator will work with older versions of Office, Paoli said. However, he said that because the two standards are significantly different, perfect document translation is not possible.

"We wanted to have this project be really transparent," Paoli said. "No translation is perfect. There are a lot of trade-offs between Open XML, which is actually full-featured and backward-compatible, and ODF, which is more limited."

For example, participants in the project will have to make a technical choice if there is a feature in Office 2007 that is not supported in OpenDocument-based products, he said.

Paoli said that Microsoft is managing the project and providing some resources.

France-based Clever Age is writing the code and will participate in the project. Aztecsoft in India is testing the software, and Dialogika in Germany will test it to meet European Commission customer requirements.

A handful of document format converters are already under development, including an Office plug-in from the OpenDocument Foundation , which is expected to be tested by Massachusetts.

Paoli said Microsoft expects that there will be a number of translators.
 

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