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Microsoft's file format perestroika

Company agrees to publish documentation letting developers know how it will implement ODF and Open XML within Microsoft Office.

Microsoft plans to open Office to other file formats, a move the company hopes will placate government and business concerns about document interoperability.

Describing this as a step to foster greater transparency, Microsoft intends to document how it incorporated Open Document Format support into Office 2007 Service Pack 2, which is still in beta. That product is expected to ship sometime in the first half of 2009.

(You can read the notes on how each element of the specification was implemented at the Document Interoperability Initiative Web site.)

Tuesday's announcement concludes a pledge Microsoft originally made last spring to boost support for rival formats in Office.

For years, IT has struggled with how best to maintain the flow of data across heterogeneous environments without incurring data loss. Monoculture or no, customers often want to save documents in a variety of formats. This has not always worked to Microsoft's advantage. In fact, last year, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency filed a complaint with the European Commission in which it alleged that Office 2007 would impede educational initiatives because it failed to natively support open standards, in particular, ODF.

Doug Mahugh, a project manager at Microsoft who deals with interoperability issues connected with the Office software suite, described the steps taken today within the broader context of disclosure, transparency, and format support.

"To get there, we found that it was not just sufficient to conform to a standard. We needed transparency about all the design decisions involved in getting to that was a way of pulling together lot of the things we were doing in interoperability."

Rightly or not, the perception was that Microsoft Office did not treat ODF as first class citizen.

"That kind of feedback is why we built ODF support into SP 2," Mahugh said.

He added that in coming months, Microsoft will publish implementation notes for Open XML with the same kind of information.