Microsoft to Standardize Office Formats

Microsoft said late Monday that it intends to submit its new Office Open XML file format to the European standards organization ECMA International. The move, which is backed by Apple, Intel and Toshiba, would create a technical committee that will ratify the format as an open standard.

Any member of ECMA could join the process, Microsoft says, and help to fully document the formats that will be used in the next releases of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Initial versions of the Office Open XML formats have been included in Office 12 Beta 1, but changes will likely be made.

Microsoft claims that by establishing the new format as an open standard, it is opening the door to third party developers who can implement Office Open XML in their own applications and services.

But the submission to ECMA stands in stark contrast to statements made by the company earlier this year. When announcing the formats in June, Senior XML Architect Jean Paoli told BetaNews that Microsoft would not be taking the standards route.

"Yes this is proprietary and not defined by a standards body, but it can be used by and interoperable with others. They don't need Microsoft software to read and write. It is not an open standard but an open format," Paoli explained.

Since that time, however, Microsoft has come under increasing pressure from OpenOffice.org 2.0 and its OpenDocument format -- an OASIS standard. The European Union and the state of Massachusetts have backed OpenDocument, and attacked Microsoft's assertion that because it utilizes XML, the formats are "open."

Now, Microsoft could quell such dissent and take advantage of a growing interest in standards based documents. "ECMA submission means Microsoft wants to fast track to ISO standards approval, ideally within a year," explained Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox.

But Wilcox warns that Microsoft has not yet detailed licensing terms for Office Open XML, and could place restrictions on the usage of its intellectual property.

"Submissions to a standards body don't ensure than any vendor could make use of the formats," Wilcox said. "For example, restrictions might prevent use of the formats in free software or where there are other licensing mechanisms, such as the GPL. Both circumstances could hurt open-source development around the file formats."

For its part, Microsoft says it has the industry's best intentions in mind.

"We are expanding the language of the current royalty-free license to specifically enable developers who work only with open source licensing to also be able to work with Office Open XML," says Paoli. "This will enable any customer or technology provider to use the file formats in its own systems without financial consideration to Microsoft."

Sun Microsystems, which played a major role in the creation of OpenDocument and funds the development of OpenOffice.org, supports Microsoft's move to standardization, but says there are still answered questions.

"Standardization of the Microsoft formats will be of no real benefit unless they are also freed from intellectual-property encumbrances, so that all developers are free to work with them, including Open-Source developers. Sun has done this with its non-assert covenant. As ECMA and ISO have no firm rules on this subject we hope Microsoft will not shirk their responsibilities," Sun said in a statement.

If Microsoft's Paoli has his way, Sun and the open source community may not have anything to worry about. "We hope to create an open standard that will enable both public and private-sector customers, technology providers and developers around the globe to work with the Office Open XML formats without barriers, with or without Microsoft products," he said.

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