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Microsoft Office to get a dose of OpenDocument

Developers have created a way to save OpenDocument documents from Microsoft Office. The first customer may be the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

A group of software developers have created a program to make Microsoft Office work with files in the OpenDocument format, a move that would bridge currently incompatible desktop applications.

Gary Edwards, an engineer involved in the open-source OpenOffice.org project and founder of the

The new program, which has been under development for about year and finished initial testing last week, is designed to let Microsoft Office manipulate OpenDocument format (ODF) files, Edwards said.

"The ODF Plugin installs on the file menu as a natural and transparent part of the 'open,' 'save,' and 'save as' sequences. As far as end users and other application add-ons are concerned, ODF Plugin renders ODF documents as if (they) were native to MS Office," according to Edwards.

If the software, which is not yet available, works as described, it will be a significant twist to an ongoing contest between Microsoft and the backers of OpenDocument, a document format gaining more interest lately, particularly among governments.

Microsoft will not natively support OpenDocument in Office 2007, which will come out later this year. Company executives have said that there is not sufficient demand and OpenDocument is less functional that its own Office formats.

Having a third-party product to save OpenDocument files from Office could give OpenDocument-based products a bump in the marketplace, said Stephen O'Grady, a RedMonk analyst.

OpenDocument is the native format for the OpenOffice open-source desktop productivity suite and is supported in others, including KOffice, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice and IBM's Workplace.

"To the extent that you get people authoring documents in a format that is natively compatible with OpenDocument, that's an important first step over the long term" to migrating people to OpenDocument-based applications, O'Grady said.

On the other hand, the OpenDocument plug-in could keep people from adopting software built by any of Microsoft Office's competitors. People who want to save documents in ODF can now use Microsoft Office, rather than OpenOffice or other Office alternatives. "It's potentially a very positive thing for Microsoft," O'Grady said.

On Friday, Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's information-worker business, said the company did not work with the developers of the plug-in. But Yates said he was not fully surprised about the new program's development either.

"We have always expected that third parties would create tools to enable the conversion of information from one file format to the other," Yates said.

"We have not seen the work, but perhaps it is evidence of how market-driven technology solutions can address the interoperability needs of customers," he said.

Mass migration
In a related development, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, a highly visible example of OpenDocument's momentum, on Wednesday publicly stated the need for an ODF Office plug-in.

On Massachusetts' , it issued a request for information for a "plug-in component or other converter options to be used with Microsoft Office that would allow Microsoft Office to easily open, render and save to ODF files."

Massachusetts also said it is looking for a utility to convert documents saved in the binary Microsoft Office formats to XML-based format and ODF.

The OpenDocument Foundation's Edwards said his advocacy group intends to answer Massachusetts' request for information and recommend that it test his new software.

In a posting on the Groklaw site, Edwards said the group then intends to offer the plug-in to government customers in California and the European Union.

"Hard as it is to believe, it's completely coincidental that Massachusetts decided on the RFI (request for information) route the day before we notified them that the ODF Plugin had completed testing. It just looks like we did this overnight," he wrote.

Massachusetts last year decided that OpenDocument is one of its approved document formats. Executive branch agencies have committed to converting over to a system to make OpenDocument the default document format by January next year.

The reason for adopting OpenDocument, which was formally standardized about one year ago, was a concern with long-term document access, according to officials.

Fork in the road
Since Massachusetts' high-profile move, Microsoft launched an effort to standardize the document formats in Office 2007 through ECMA, a European standards body.

ECMA certification for the Office Open XML formats is expected next year. Microsoft also intends to seek ISO standardization, which OpenDocument achieved on Tuesday.

Microsoft's Yates said that one of the purposes of the company's standardization effort was to invite third-party developers, including open-source developers, to create products that interoperate with the Open Office XML formats.

Having not seen plug-in software, Yates was not aware of any legal problems it might pose.

"If they are simply working with the Office Open XML Formats, or the binary format information we have made available, there should be no problem," Yates said.

Edwards, meanwhile, said that the plug-in was made specifically for people who have systems closely tied to Microsoft desktop software that would make moving to an alternative, like OpenOffice, very difficult in the short term.

"Consider the ODF Plug-in as an important part of that wave of desktop, server and device applications moving to ODF everywhere, all the time, for every purpose," he said.

Because Microsoft will make XML, rather than binary, file formats be the default setting in Office 2007, many customers will need to make some decisions about file formats in the coming years, noted RedMonk's O'Grady.

"There will be a fork in the road, whatever path you choose, whether it's Microsoft, something other, or ODF," said O'Grady.