How open is the new Office?

Microsoft's support for XML in an upcoming release of Office could finally open up the suite's proprietary file formats--but only if Microsoft discloses the underlying XML dialect.

6 min read
Microsoft says it's opening its Office desktop software by adding support for XML--a move that should help companies free up access to shared information. But there's a catch: It has yet to disclose the underlying XML dialect.

More on an open Office
The software giant intends to make Extensible Markup Language (XML) a supported file format--in addition to existing proprietary formats--for its upcoming Office 11 desktop software, which is in the hands of about 12,000 beta testers. XML is a widely used standard for Web data exchange.

With the Office 11 update, Microsoft is allowing files saved in the XML format to be viewable through any standard Web browser. That's a big change from the company's previous stance of using only proprietary file formats. But Office's XML support will allow larger companies to extract and use data from documents more efficiently, according to Microsoft.

However, Microsoft has yet to disclose the proprietary dialect--or underlying schema--of the XML used in Office 11. Unlike HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) tags, which are universal, XML tags can be customized by developers and so need to be communicated to the software that reads them. The XML tags that define the elements of a document are collectively called a schema.

The software maker says it plans to disclose additional information on Office 11's XML schemas, possibly when the update ships next spring. Right now, a limited number of beta testers have access to some schema information. But it's unclear how complete the information Microsoft intends to release will be. Whether the company will disclose enough to allow interoperability with competing programs, and whether the schema information will be governed by licensing terms, are still unknown.

If Microsoft doesn't divulge those XML schemas, people who want to edit files created in Office 11 will only be able to do that with Office itself, as before. Text in Office 11 files stored in XML format might be viewable in other desktop programs, but all document formatting would be lost and most other files would be unreadable.

The move could also hamper data exchange with competing desktop productivity software that recognizes XML, such as Corel's WordPerfect or Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, say analysts and competitors.

Shawn Prince, a network administrator from Columbus, Ohio, outlined two options for Office users under Microsoft's strategy. "My understanding of the future adoption of XML within Office is this: All Office products will output to an XML file, which would be viewable via any browser, but editable only from within the originating office application--or by a very, very skilled XML programmer."

Closed-door policy
Microsoft's position has led analysts, competitors and software developers to complain that the company's efforts to open up Office file formats are half-hearted. Microsoft isn't taking any chances with its overwhelming control--more than 90 percent share--of the desktop application market, they said.

"Basically, Microsoft using XML for Office is a PR trick--it lets them spin a story that they're using an open format, without actually taking the risks of being truly open," said John Stracke, a software engineer in Bedford, Mass. "If Microsoft believes customers are getting worried about format lock-in, then using XML is a way to assuage their fears without losing their lock-in," Stracke said.

Microsoft executives acknowledged that the company's XML support in Office is governed by a proprietary schema and that XML documents created by Office 11 applications may not be readable in a competing product. "That all depends on how (competitors) run their software," said Simon Marks, a lead product manager for Office. "If someone creates a schema that is important to their industry, we will support them," he said.

"In theory, the addition of the XML support could create interoperability among applications such as word-processing, spreadsheets, etc.--all while retaining high-level information for editing," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research. But he added that Microsoft's support for XML "doesn't necessarily translate into support for a universal file format. The Office file formats are a powerful weapon in Microsoft's arsenal that they will not let go of easily."

In part, Microsoft blames the XML document compatibility problem on competitors. Office 11 is the first and--so far--only productivity suite to support the World Wide Web Consortium-sanctioned XML Schema Definition Language, or XSD. XSD is an XML-based language for describing the structure of XML documents.

Jean Paoli, Microsoft's XML architect, said the problem with other products reading Office-generated XML documents has nothing to do with proprietary schemas but has to do with lack of support for XSD. "Absolutely," those files would be usable in, say, WordPerfect Office if the product supported XSD, he said. "That's absolutely true. You can put my name to it."

That scenario leaves "Microsoft with the initiative," said Gartner analyst Wes Rischel. To add new features to an XML format, "somebody has to define that (the format). If they're the only ones that can define that, then for the other office products, the best they can do is keep up with Microsoft. They can't have any initiative of their own."

Marks argued that competitors are too hung up on Microsoft's approach to XML in Office 11. "The file format issue is really a red herring," he said. "XML in Office 11 is 100 percent industry standard. We are committed to industry standards here."

Standards efforts
Microsoft's rivals disagree, and are seeking to establish some control over how desktop applications use XML. Some competitors have banded together to create an XML standard for office productivity suites. The standard--already supported in WordPerfect and StarOffice--allows documents to be stored and edited in XML format.

In November, members of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) established a committee to create that standard for office productivity applications. Supporters, which include Corel and Sun, are using the XML specifications developed by the open-source OpenOffice project as a starting point.

Microsoft does not support that OASIS effort, and Marks dismissed it as a step backward. "Using XML as a blunt instrument to create yet another file format seems to be something of a retrograde step as far as XML is concerned," he said.

Gartner's Rischel disagreed. "We can all use XML, but unless we all agree on a schema, the stuff is pretty much locked up in the format of the dominant vendor."

Marks did not rule out Microsoft's eventual participation. In a recent report, however, market researcher Gartner concluded any involvement would be unlikely because of OASIS's royalty-free licensing policy, which Microsoft opposes. "At the moment we haven't decided whether we will join the committee or not," Marks said. "We also haven't turned it down. We're waiting to see where Sun wants to take this, what (its) goal is."

The issue of Office's XML support has come into focus in recent months. Many large businesses, particularly those stung by recent Microsoft licensing price increases, have become increasingly aware of how dependent they are on Microsoft because of their use of proprietary Office file formats, said analysts.

"The problem for many organizations is that there are years of institutional knowledge that are locked into the Office formats forever," said Gartenberg.

Ultimately, Microsoft has no incentive to support an open XML approach to office productivity software and has many good reasons to prevent such a move, said analysts.

"Microsoft would lose a lot of money," Rischel said. "Right now, Microsoft can set the price of Office products based on knowing their large clients don't have an alternative." Open formats "would create a market for other products" and competitive pricing.

Rischel said that corporate data locked in Microsoft file formats is a huge industry problem. But he added that there is a potential solution, if customers react before Microsoft releases Office 11 next summer. "If these companies really want to not have the files and resources locked up in files in proprietary formats, the best they can do now is support efforts like the OASIS effort," he said.

Whatever Microsoft's plans are for its XML support, some Office users see it as a limitation and are prepared to look for alternatives. Jason Carr, an IT specialist based in Columbus, Ind., believes that "Microsoft uses proprietary schemas to make it difficult for competing products to read files. I'm in complete support of someone creating a standard, but I believe it should be an open standard, and not proprietary. I would be curious to (know) what other products are available or will be available to compete against Microsoft."