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Microsoft's document gambit moves ahead

Standards vote could boost its Office document format in high-stakes race for desktop prominence.

A battle is being fought in the arcane world of international standards, with piles of money and long-term access to digital documents at stake.

Years of work to bring XML-based documents to Microsoft Office will culminate on Thursday, when Ecma International is expected to certify Microsoft Office formats as international standards.

While the anticipated approval is significant, notably to government customers in Europe, Microsoft's foray into documents standards in many ways has just begun.

The company has dominated the desktop productivity market for well over a decade. But another document standard, called OpenDocument Format, or ODF, has emerged as a viable alternative and has garnered interest from a growing number of governments and technology vendors .

These document format standards matter a great deal financially, because they can influence which software products companies choose to buy. Microsoft Office Open XML is the default document format for its Office 2007 suite, which was recently released to businesses and is set for consumer availability on January 30. Alternative OpenDocument is the default for the open-source suite and the preference of Microsoft rivals IBM, Novell and Sun Microsystems.

The emergence of dueling standards has ratcheted up the competition in Microsoft's home turf--a situation that should benefit end users who care about accessing documents in the future, said Andrew Updegrove, an attorney at Gesmer Updegrove and author of a blog that follows international standards.

"This is important. What's at stake is that a technology-based society is coming to grips with aspects of technology that they have foolishly ignored to date," said Updegrove, who is also the attorney for OASIS, the standards body behind OpenDocument.

Andrew Updegrove Andrew Updegrove

The emergence of parallel document standards--with another being formed for China--casts light on the intertwined nature of technology standards and politics. Much like parties taking sides on a hot-button political issue, factions with aligning interests have emerged.

"ODF and Linux represent the first chinks in Microsoft's armor in a long time. And just like the way Microsoft is going to do everything it can to protect (its desktop software business), others are going to do all they can to exploit that weakness," Updegrove said.

High emotions and back-room politics
While discussions of international standards typically appeal to a small number of technocrats, the ongoing debate over document standards can be a highly emotional issue.

Novell on Monday announced that it will work with Microsoft to support Office Open XML formats in its distribution of OpenOffice. It also said it will submit that "translator" code to the OpenOffice open-source project.

That decision prompted Groklaw blog author Pamela Jones, who tracks legal news in the technology industry, to accuse Novell of "forking" OpenOffice. ("Forks" come when groups have different ideas about how code should progress and take it from a single point along divergent paths.) Novell's open-source vice president, Miguel de Icaza, defended the company in a spirited response posted to his blog.

"The reality is that people react emotionally--it's Microsoft," said Justin Steinman, Novell's director of marketing for Linux and open-platform solutions. "If people can step away from the emotion and look at this objectively, they can see this (document interoperability) as goodness for the end customer."

State of play
The State of Massachusetts drew international attention last year when it decided to mandate the use in its agencies of software that worked with standard "open formats." At the time, that technology did not include Microsoft Office.

That Massachusetts initiative is still in effect, despite being challenged by state politicians and despite the resignation of two chief information officers from the state post. In addition, Microsoft and its supporters have criticized the policy as "exclusionary" and as unfairly favoring non-Microsoft products.

The high-profile case has involved intense behind-the-scenes lobbying. A Microsoft employee pushed for a bill amendment that would have taken technology decision-making power away from the state's chief information officer, according to an account published in .

Similarly, rival IBM has been endorsing OpenDocument around the world with government customers.

IBM has been distinctly cool to Microsoft's Open XML standard effort. It decided not to participate in the Ecma technical committee around Open XML, calling it a "rubber stamp" process. It also said the specification is redundant, given the existence of OpenDocument.

To further its goal of spreading OpenDocument to national governments, IBM is using its representatives in other international standards groups, said Alan Yates, the general manager of Microsoft's information worker business.

Big Blue has influenced the governments of Brazil, India and Italy, which this week recognized OpenDocument as standard, through the company's participation in the International Organization for Standards (ISO), he said.

"Those are instances where the ISO process, and IBM's influence on the ISO process, put (ODF) on national standards lists," Yates said.

In response to Yates' comments, an IBM representative said that the company is "proud of its long-standing reputation within standards communities around the world as a respected and open consensus builder, innovation partner, leader, contributor and facilitator."

Yates said that Microsoft chose to lobby in Massachusetts to combat a government lobbying strategy taken up by IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Jeff Kaplan, the founder and director of Open ePolicy Group, which advocates for the use of "open technologies" in government, said that governments are seizing upon Microsoft alternatives out of self-interest.

"Governments are leading to move to ODF because they want control over data and to break their data lock-in. They see it as a matter of sovereignty, and they are uncomfortable with continued dependency on one company," Kaplan said. He added that the expected Ecma standard certification of Office Open XML will increase confusion in the marketplace.

Putting a face on XML
In addition to voting on Office Open XML as a standard, the Ecma general assembly will decide, when it meets in Zurich on Thursday, whether to send it to ISO for certification. That ISO process could be completed within nine months, Microsoft said. Earlier this month, OpenDocument was passed as an ISO standard--a certification that has far more significance to government customers worldwide than Ecma approval, Updegrove said.

Yet Microsoft views its standardization efforts as more than a simple attempt to make its software appealing to governments that favor standards-certified products.

Jean Paoli Jean Paoli

Having the document formats based on XML (extensible markup language) opens up possibilities for many different types of applications, which "put a face on XML," said Jean Paoli, senior director of XML architecture at Microsoft and one of the creators of the original XML standard.

For example, content management systems or workflow applications will be able to take the billions of Office documents in existence and exchange them with disparate back-end systems, he said.

"We developed the format in order to enable those scenarios which are precisely integration with other systems," Paoli said. "By definition, we needed technology to be stable, and that's why we went to a standards body."

During the year-long Ecma process, Microsoft and other participants, which included representatives from Novell and Apple Computer, made changes the initial Office Open XML specification to make Office documents work with different operating systems, Paoli said.

Novell, for example, will allow customers with systems running OpenOffice on Linux to read and save documents created in Microsoft Office by next year.

However, because Office has more advanced features than OpenOffice, making conversions of sophisticated Office spreadsheet and presentation documents will not be perfect, Novell's Steinman said.

Microsoft is sponsoring an open-source project to create converters that will allow Office users to read OpenDocument files. That project was done specifically in response to government customer requests, Yates said.

These converters are expected to be completed by the middle of next year. A plug-in to translate Word files to OpenDocument is slated for completion in January.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has released Office Open XML file converters for older versions of Office. But it indicated on Wednesday that Mac translation tools won't be ready until March or April of next year.

The race is on
Whether and how document format standardization will ultimately benefit Microsoft is still unclear. But opinions aren't lacking.

If the Office Open XML standard is used in very few products outside Microsoft Office, customers may migrate to OpenDocument because they have limited choices, argued Stephen Walli, a technology executive and former Microsoft employee involved in standards and open source.

Conversely, if Office Open XML becomes a common feature in products like OpenOffice, then Microsoft runs the risk of commoditizing its Office applications, he said.

"I think that Microsoft has exposed itself on Office 12" (the code-name for Office 2007), he said.

A recent survey by IDC of IT executives in Nordic countries found high interest in standards-based documents, with public sector respondents showing an affinity for OpenDocument and private industry respondents favoring Office Open XML.

"Although ODF is claiming a large number of supporting vendors and products, the footprint in the market of office products like StarOffice,, IBM Workplace and Google Docs is still not substantial. Microsoft Office is having a very large market share, and this will help driving Open XML into the market as a document standard," the research firm's report said.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft executives see clear benefits to standardization of documents--one of the company's several initiatives to improve interoperability. The software maker already supports multiple formats, and standards certifications will make that easier, noted Microsoft's Yates.

"In some ways, (after the expected standardization) things will get back to normal," he said. "People already share documents through PDF, HTML and .doc. But now, they'll use XML--that's the difference."