Microsoft to standardize Office formats

Office's 12 XML-based file formats will be submitted to European standards body Ecma International.

Microsoft intends to submit file formats for its new Office 12 applications to the European standards body Ecma International. The company hopes this will allay concern about its level of control over document formats.

Microsoft, which dominates the market for desktop productivity software, plans to provide the specifications of Office 12 file formats to Ecma early next month. In addition to Microsoft, the technical committee is being sponsored by Intel, Apple Computer, NextPage and some European customers, including British Petroleum and the British Library.

The creation of a fully documented standard derived from the formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML, will likely take about a year, Microsoft executives said. Once Microsoft Office Open XML is recognized as an Ecma standard, the group of companies then intends to pursue standardization at ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, which is particularly influential among government customers.

"Moving to standard as an open standard will place a level of trust on the technology that will give people the confidence to get behind it," said Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's information worker strategy. "We look forward to the day when people look at this as a milestone, as the beginning of the end for closed documents."

Ecma is a Geneva-based standards organization which issues standards and recommendations. Microsoft has submitted other software to Ecma for standardization, including programming languages

As part of its standardization effort, Microsoft will change the license to entice software developers to work with the file formats. "We're taking an approach that's basically a promise from Microsoft not to sue developers," said Yates.

Microsoft has already made the specifications for the XML document formats in Office 2003 available on a royalty-free basis. Office 12, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2006, will save documents by default in the Open XML format.

A representative of Sun Microsystems, which competes with Microsoft in the desktop software market, said that it's unclear whether the licensing that Microsoft adopts will allow open-source developers to use the Office Open XML formats. The representative also questioned whether the Ecma committee will, like other standards bodies, take significant contributions from several companies, not just Microsoft.

Similarly, an IBM representative said that the company is awaiting more details on Microsoft's plans, specifically in regard to any intellectual property encumbrances, open-source licensing, and proprietary extensions.

"It is our hope that in the coming days, Microsoft will provide additional important details which will serve to clarify their position," IBM said in a statement. "Specifically, does this announcement represent a true commitment to openness?"

Many customers, notably government agencies with long-term record archiving needs, have pressured Microsoft to make its document formats available on favorable terms. With access to these technical specifications, customers are assured that documents can be read by many different products, according to Microsoft.

The British Library on Monday lauded Microsoft's move.

"It's an important step forward for digital preservation and will help us fulfill the British Library's core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come," Adam Farquhar, head of e-architecture at the British Library, said in a statement.

Dueling office format standards

Despite Microsoft's active embrace of XML-based file formats and work with government customers, the commonwealth of Massachusetts--in a high-profile and contested case--decided to adopt an XML-based format called OpenDocument, or ODF. The decision was driven in large part because OpenDocument is developed by a multiparty standards organization, rather than a single company, according to state officials.

Some of Microsoft's foes have rallied behind OpenDocument, including IBM, Sun, Novell, Adobe Systems and Google. Microsoft plans to accommodate OpenDocument formats in Office 12 through third-party products rather than native file format support.

Microsoft's Yates said that OpenDocument and Microsoft's Open XML formats both address productivity applications but have some differences. He said his company's formats are designed to be thoroughly compatible with all existing Office formats and to integrate XML-formatted data from other applications.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), the standards body behind OpenDocument, has already submitted OpenDocument to ISO for standardization.

Based on Microsoft's previous Ecma standardization efforts, it's not clear that Microsoft will relinquish control of the Office formats to other companies, said Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady.

He noted that Microsoft submitted its C# and Common Language Runtime software to ECM, and both are used by the open-source project Mono. But Mono "is eyed warily by Microsoft," he said.

"It's interesting that Microsoft would feel compelled to make this move but at the end of the day, it's still a format controlled by a single commercial entity," O'Grady said.

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