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Microsoft says Office beta coming in November

And the new version will support for Adobe's PDF format. Office chief Steven Sinofsky talks about the move, as well as the brewing battle over file formats.

Has the battle over document file formats forced Microsoft to blink?

Microsoft has been gradually opening its Office formats for years, adding support for options such as Rich Text Format and HTML. But the pressure on Redmond to open things up further has continued, most recently with the state of Massachusetts issuing a mandate that its software purchases support a rival format, OpenDocument. This week, Microsoft announced that, with the next version of Office, it will support saving files to Adobe's Portable Document Format, or PDF.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Microsoft Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky said the company gets 120,000 requests a month from people who want to save their Office documents in PDF format, making it one of the most requested features.

It's been a feature area that has been under development for the whole product cycle; we just chose to announce it this past week.

While logical, the move raises questions about how the PDF support will coexist with Windows Vista's move to its own page description format, known as Metro.

Some clues may emerge when Microsoft releases the first beta of Office 12, something Sinofsky said will happen in November. While clear on the timing, Sinofsky didn't provide many clues on what else to expect in the beta. Microsoft has talked about general areas it hopes to improve with Office 12, as well as the program's new look. However, the company has yet to release a reckoning of what new features the program will pack.

Sinofsky also addressed how Microsoft views the controversy surrounding Massachusetts' mandate for the OpenDocument standard.

Q: PDFs have been popular for a while. Why add them now to Office?
Sinofsky: We've had an ongoing investment in opening up Office, starting back with Office 2000 and the HTML file format, Office 2003 with XML, and recently the announcement of the open XML format for Office 12. We think it is just a natural fit with that evolution. It's been a feature area that has been under development for the whole product cycle; we just chose to announce it this past week.

How does this fit with Metro, the new document format being established with Windows Vista?
Sinofsky: Right now we are still in the process of talking publicly about different investments that we've made with Office 12. We have a beta coming up in November. This week we chose to talk about the PDF investments that we've made, in particular.

Obviously Vista will natively support Metro, so if somebody is running Office 12 in Vista they will have the ability to save and print using Metro. Is it too early to say if Windows XP users will be able to do the same?
Sinofsky: The way that we have talked about the (Metro) feature, it will work for all applications on the platform. For Office 12, since we haven't disclosed the whole feature set of the product, today we are really focused on telling folks about the PDF support that we've added.

You mentioned that there is a beta coming in November. What are people likely to see? How far along will things be by this point?
Sinofsky: When we come out with our beta, it will be our Beta 1. That's the first of the betas, so it will be in the kind of shape that people normally expect Beta 1 to be in.

Do you think this might open some doors in Massachusetts and other states that might be considering some kind of OpenDocument mandate?
Sinofsky: I can't speak specifically for any particular location. We're very excited about the investments we've made in opening up Office. This just speaks to our commitment for customers to have a choice in what types of open formats they want to work within the Office applications.

If Microsoft can add HTML and XML and now PDF-saving options, wouldn't it be fairly easy to support the OpenDocument format?
Sinofsky: I certainly wouldn't say it would be fairly easy. In fact it would be a very substantial undertaking. Frankly, we've had no demand from our customers for this feature.

We get over 120,000 requests every month for PDF support from our Office Online Web site. We chose to announce out PDF support to our MVPs (most valued professionals), a group of power users, writers, trainers consultants, VARs. They've been asking for this feature for a very long time. They were incredibly excited. None of them asked for any other formats in addition to this one.

How important is this movement toward open documents? Massachusetts is one example. Certainly there have been countries overseas that have wanted more openness. How big an issue is that for Microsoft and how are you thinking about that?
Sinofsky: We've always felt that the primary value that we deliver to people is not in the format that the information is stored in but in the tool that's used to create the format. At the same time, what the format does is it affords us a way of delivering scalable, robust secure applications. There are engineering reasons why we invest in different formats over time.

Yet, from a marketplace perspective, we continue to focus on the experience. That's why you see the new user experience in Office 12 as being a really big focus. We think, at the end of the day, that's where customers make their decisions about what's really valuable.

Is there a proprietary value in the formats?
Sinofsky: Generally speaking, we've always had the point of view that the value comes with the tools themselves. The format is a way of representing the features in the product and a way of maintaining the reliability and the robustness.

It used to be that the format was something that you changed every single release and nobody thought about it. Now, what people are saying is, "We don't mind change, we like change, but we want it to have very specific value propositions."

With Office 12, we really focused on (the fact that) we want to open up the format to developers, so you can right code on servers, so you can more easily index and retrieve information from the files. We want it to be more robust... and we wanted the files to get smaller because more and more things are sent over mail attachments where that really matters.

With adding the ability to save Office documents as PDF, it seems like once again Microsoft is going after one of Adobe's cash cows. We've seen a lot of products that seem to be targeting one thing or another that Adobe does. How do you guys view the relationship with Adobe?
Sinofsky: I would certainly not agree with the premise of your question. Adobe publishes the PDF specification as an open standard and encourages developers to implement the output as PDF. They've gone out of their way to tell people, "Please support this format." We're just supporting the format, which is the message that they've given to us. We appreciate the work that they have done to publish the standard just like we have done to publish our Open XML standard...I wouldn't think of this at all as going after Adobe. In fact, it is doing precisely what they have been telling the public, and evangelizing to (other software makers) to do.

If documents can be saved as PDF files, why not allow them to be read that way from within Office?
Sinofsky: PDF is by far and away a representation designed to be the printed page, or "as printed." That's predominately the vast majority of usage, well over 99 percent of it on the Web. If you see something centered on the page, in PDF you won't know if that came from a table, if that came from an indented margin, if it came from a style. All of that information is lost when you save it as a printed page, just like when it is printed out to a printer. If you want to have a round trip for editing, that's really why we have invested heavily in the open XML format.