Microsoft is creating opportunities for software manufacturers by adding native support for OpenDocument Format (ODF) to the next service pack for Office 2007 (full Office 2007 review here, analysts say.

Microsoft announced its intention to include native support for ODF in the forthcoming service pack, which is due out in the first six months of 2009 in the wake of continued regulatory scrutiny from the European Commission (EC) over interoperability concerns.

The EC said in a statement that it welcomes steps Microsoft takes toward genuine interoperability and that it would analyse the latest announcement to see how it affects consumers' software choices.

In January, the EC opened two new antitrust investigations against Microsoft concerning the interoperability of Windows with other software and the company's practice of bundling software products with Windows.

At least one office software maker thinks Microsoft's turnaround on ODF will mean more flexibility for software buyers. The ability to save in ODF in Microsoft Office could give users more confidence to switch to, a free open-source suite, said John McCreesh, a spokesman for

"The whole purpose of having an open standard is to give people freedom of choice," McCreesh said. "It means we have a level playing field, which is what it's all about."

Of course, those users could migrate to Microsoft from, too, McCreesh said.

A looming concern is whether Microsoft's implementation of ODF within Office will handle documents with the same or better performance as competing suites. Microsoft has been criticised for embracing a particular standard but using subtle means within its software to subvert it.

One organisation that has been particularly critical of Microsoft also welcomed the news. Wider user of ODF through Office could also give a boost to competing operating systems such as Linux, said the Free Software Foundation Europe.

"The move to support ODF, if genuine, would remove one of the most effective barriers for migration to GNU/Linux on the desktop," said spokesman Georg CF Greve.

"The Microsoft desktop monopoly would be unlikely to continue in such a situation and millions of computer users would enjoy genuine freedom of choice."

Next page: resistance, bitter criticism and OOXML

Despite years of bitter criticism, Microsoft resisted putting native support for ODF in Office, instead supporting projects to create translators. Sun Microsystems developed one of those translators, which allows users to save in ODF in Microsoft Office 2003.

Microsoft also chose to push its Office Open XML (OOXML) format, which was approved by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in April. Opponents of OOXML said Microsoft's specification would unnecessarily splinter and complicate office software productivity products.

Microsoft said that it would not implement ISO standard 29500, as the approved OOXML version is known, in Office 2007 but instead the next version of the program, known as Office 14.

That means ODF will have a few years' head start on the ISO's approved OOXML standard. Microsoft hasn't set a date for release of Office 14. Office 2007 was released first to business users in November 2006.

In the meantime, ODF could gain wider support, wrote ODF supporter Andrew Updegrove, an open-source and open-standards lawyer with Gesmer Updegrove in Boston.

"Given the quality of open-source office suites such as OpenOffice, the frequency of ODF-based files popping up in the work flows of Office-based shops can now be expected to increase much more quickly," Updegrove said.

Microsoft's latest move may help put out other fires. A British government agency filed a complaint with the EC earlier this month alleging that Microsoft impedes the exchange of files between Office 2007 and competitors' products.

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), which advises British schools on technology, recommended in January that schools should not upgrade to Vista and Office 2007.

Becta has also called on Microsoft to make its products more interoperable, as well as putting "built-in and effective" support for ODF in Office 2007.

Becta said it will examine Office 2007 after it has been upgraded. "If necessary, we will update our advice to schools and colleges," the agency said in a statement.

IBM, one of Microsoft's fiercest critics during the OOXML deliberations, praised Microsoft's new stance on ODF.

"The company will definitely benefit from being able to address this support requirement in the marketplace," said Bob Picciano, general manager and head of IBM's Lotus software and collaboration business.

But Picciano said he hopes Microsoft is serious about contributing to the development of ODF as it has pledged.

Microsoft's closest competitor in the office software space, Corel, also recently decided to included ODF support.

WordPerfect Office X4, released in April, adds support for ODF as well as Microsoft's version of OOXML included in Office 2007, said Greg Wood, communications manager for WordPerfect Office.

"So far, Corel's customers have been more interested in OOXML support than ODF", Wood said.