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Office standards battle grinds on

Creation of Ecma standard committee gives Microsoft a point in escalating battle over desktop software.

Standards body Ecma International has created a committee to standardize Microsoft Office document formats, handing the software giant a victory in an intensifying struggle over desktop software.

At a general assembly meeting of Ecma in Nice, France, on Friday, the Geneva-based organization established a technical committee to make formal standards from Microsoft's XML-based Office file formats.

The committee will have responsibility for enhancing the standard "while maintaining backward compatibility" and to handle maintenance of the specification. A first edition is slated for completion by the end of 2006, according to Ecma.

News.context

What's new:
Standards body Ecma International has created a technical committee to standardize Microsoft Office file formats.

Bottom line:
The Microsoft-led committee is a key defense against a multivendor power play to use document standards to loosen Microsoft's control over desktop software.

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The move, already anticipated, is the latest volley in a match being fought in standards bodies, state governments and blogs. At stake is whether Microsoft can retain its current level of dominance in productivity applications, a source of billions of profit dollars for the company.

Microsoft's desktop application hegemony is being challenged by a standard, called OpenDocument. Products that used OpenDocument are only now coming onto the market and are used far less than Office. But many Microsoft rivals, including IBM, Sun Microsystems and Google, are leveraging their collective weight behind OpenDocument.

"Companies have been unsuccessful at competing (against) Microsoft Office for at least 10 years with other products," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "Now they are trying to use the file format as a wedge issue to try to unlock Microsoft's hold."

The rival OpenDocument format rose in prominence earlier this year when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a policy--now being reviewed--that mandated the use of OpenDocument for storing documents generated in executive-branch state agencies.

The debate over the state's productivity application standards will continue Wednesday at a state senate hearing at the State House in Boston. The forum will be hosted by the Senate committee on economic development and emerging technologies and the state's science and technology caucus.

Although its millions of desktop computers make the state of Massachusetts a sizable customer for any provider, the fate of its OpenDocument policy has taken on greater significance. It has become something of landmark issue, attracting a flurry of open letters from lobbying groups and industry executives with a vested interest.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy wrote to Massachusetts officials earlier this year: "We feel that requiring the use of an office document format, OpenDocument 1.0, which is standardized by a public process, completely free of legal encumbrances, already implemented in multiple products, not controlled by any one vendor, and on its way to being an ISO standard is enlightened and will pay long-term benefits to the citizens of Massachusetts."

Another indication of the importance of the case is the planned attendance of Alan Yates, the general manager of Microsoft's Information Worker division, who has led its standardization efforts. Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards, and Sun's Bob Sproull, a Sun fellow and vice president of Sun Labs in Massachusetts, are also on the agenda.

Legal framework

Microsoft executives said it decided to standardize its Office file formats to allow customers, notably national governments with long-term archival needs, to access the contents of documents for years without being dependent on Microsoft.

"Ecma International's creation of the Technical Committee to produce a formal standard--which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats--means customers and the industry are one step closer to preserved interoperability," Yates said in a statement.

In tandem with the creation of the Ecma committee, Microsoft revealed further details on the legal framework it has established around the Office Open XML formats.

In an FAQ, the company said it will grant royalty-free access to third parties that want to use the file formats and that it will not sue any other party for using patented Office technology.

In answer to a lingering question following the company's announced plans, Microsoft said its licensing scheme will allow for creation of open-source products.

"Because the (open-source) General Public License (GPL) is not universally interpreted the same way by everyone, we can't give anyone a legal opinion about how our language relates to the GPL or other OSS (open-source software) licenses, but we believe we have removed the principal objections that people found with our prior license in a very simple and clear way," the Microsoft FAQ stated.

Microsoft enlisted other companies to sponsor the Ecma proposal, including Apple Computer, Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Essilor, Intel, NextPage, Statoil and Toshiba.

of the Ecma effort. For example, on Thursday, and Hewlett-Packard abstained, according to an IBM representative.

"Questions raised previously about development, access and implementation remain unresolved today," an IBM representative said Thursday. He added that it is still unclear whether proprietary extensions to the standard will be permitted.

Andy Updegrove, partner at Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove, called Microsoft's Ecma submission "a naked request to rubber stamp a vendor-specific solution." Updegrove is an attorney for OASIS, the standards body developing the OpenDocument standard, which was ratified in May.

The state of Massachusetts, by contrast, reacted positively to Microsoft's Office standard plan. If approved as a standard, Open Office XML could allow Microsoft to compete for contracts in state government agencies, according to a representative from the office of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Microsoft had been effectively shut out of the desktop software procurement process because it does not intend to support the OpenDocument format natively. Instead, it said it intends to rely on third-party products.

The Office Open XML committee at Ecma, meanwhile, has chosen to prioritize compatibility with existing Microsoft Office document formats.

"The benefit of backward compatibility that this effort will provide is evident from the broad spectrum of sponsors that will work together under the formal Ecma standardization process," Ecma secretary general Jan van den Beld, said in a statement. A standard format will allow billions of existing Office documents to be converted with no loss of data or formatting, Ecma said.

As the technical committee prepares for its first meeting, expected later this month, Microsoft rivals and desktop software industry observers will be monitoring how open the process is to outside companies.

Gartner's Silver noted that it would be difficult for Microsoft to support the Office Open XML file formats in Office 12, which is due next year, if any substantial changes to the specification are made.

"It's fairly obvious that the specification that they have is very Microsoft Office-centric, whereas you would expect that something that they're trying to make open would be more generic," Silver said. "It's difficult to divorce the file format from the product."