Microsoft announced yesterday that it will offer its Word, Excel and PowerPoint document formats as open standards, a move that could spark a war with technology rivals over document formats.
Microsoft said it would submit its Office Open XML (Extensible Markup Language) document format technology to the ISO (International Standards Organization) to be adopted as an international standard in time for the launch of the next version of its Office software suite, code-named Office 12.0.
The development comes as a group of technology rivals led by IBM and Sun are mobilising a global effort to push the OASIS consortium's Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) as a global standard format for these kinds of documents. The effort was spurred in part by a highly publicised proposal in Massachusetts requiring compliance with OpenDocument for government documents, which would mean the phasing out of Microsoft Office and its proprietary format.
Microsoft has been facing increasing pressure from governments and agencies as they have insisted on standards-compliance for their software. Company executives confirmed that the move would help the company win contracts from public authorities that want software based on open standards.
"We have a few barriers [with government contracts]," said Alan Yates, general manager for Microsoft Office. "It will give governments more long-term confidence."
Yet a key supporter of OpenDocument and steward of OpenOffice, an open-source rival to Office, said Microsoft is using the move as an "end run" around having to support OpenDocument, which has the backing of a host of vendors, including IBM, Sun, Novell, Red Hat, Google, Apple and Intel. This is because companies can take a look at ISO standards, but they can't use them to build their own applications, said Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager of OpenOffice.org and chair of the group's governing council.
"With an open standard any application can use it," he said. "With an ISO standard, it's not quite the same thing. It just means you have a reference for it."
Microsoft's Yates admitted that the move would help Microsoft compete against OpenOffice, although he said he believed that the company was, in effect, already doing so.
The decision also reflects pressure from the EC and member governments of the EU. Yates said that Microsoft has been asked to standardise its formats. The issue has come up at series of meetings between company executives and EU government officials.
Microsoft also is planning to make available tools so that old documents will be able to take advantage of the open standard. "It's the end of closed documents," he said.
For the industry, it would offer new levels of opportunity for innovation, he said. "Developers of all kinds will rush to take advantage [of the format]," Yates predicted.
Still, some are puzzled about why Microsoft continues to balk on supporting OpenDocument, when other vendors are rallying behind it.
Stephen O'Grady, a senior analyst with RedMonk, said that it appears Microsoft is still keeping its Open XML as a control point in the battle for document standards.
He said that while it's not a bad move, it seems illogical that Microsoft would submit its own file formats to a standards body rather than simply add OpenDocument support to Office alongside its own and other formats, such as Adobe's popular PDF. Microsoft already has announced plans to support PDF in Office 12.0.
"To me what it should’ve done from a competitive standpoint is support OpenDocument format. They can do that without jeopardising their own position," O'Grady said. "I have never been one who says Microsoft should drop what it's doing. I just don't know why they can't add OpenDocument [support] alongside other formats, when they support WordPerfect and PDF."
Yates said that the comparison between OpenDocument and Open XML "is an apples to oranges" comparison. "Open XML allows companies to integrate data directly into the documents so the document carries data for the corporation, and [OpenDocument] does things very differently," he said. "Our customers require us to support the full feature set of Office and Office 12.0. They would not accept us supporting anything that didn't support some features or hid other features."
Because of these inconsistencies, it is not such an easy task to build OpenDocument support into Office, especially while the company is already busy updating older Office file formats to Open XML.
"We do in fact have millions of customers and billions of documents we must make compatible from older formats to new Open XML-centered format," Yates said. "We are working very hard to take care of that issue."
Microsoft has assembled a group of major industry users and computer firms to support its move. These include companies such as Apple, UK oil company BP, Intel and Norwegian oil company Statoil ASA.
The group will make a joint submission to the Geneva-based ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association) for the XML document formats for the three Office products to become an open standard. The ECMA's evaluation process is expected to take around a year. Once completed, ECMA will forward a request to the ISO, which is also based in Geneva.
Microsoft's Yates explained that the timing had been chosen to ensure that the XML formats became open standards in time for the launch of Office 12.0 toward the end of next year.