Microsoft to Support OpenDocument

In a surprise move, Microsoft is bending to pressure from governments and will sponsor an open source project to build tools that enable conversion between its Open XML formats in Office 2007 and OpenDocument (ODF). The forthcoming Office suite will also support an add-in for saving directly to ODF.

The Open XML Translator project will be hosted on SourceForge.net, and is available under the BSD open source license. Microsoft says anyone can submit bugs and contribute to the project. A beta of the Open XML translator for Word 2007 will be made available Thursday, which can convert .docx Word documents to .odf and vice versa.

That final Word 2007 translation tool will ship by the end of 2006, with converters for Excel and PowerPoint slated to follow early next year. Each will be made available free of charge. Microsoft is expected to ship Office 2007 sometime in the first quarter, after announcing a slight delay last week.

Microsoft has tapped France-based partner Clever Age to create the OpenDocument tools, along with independent software vendors Aztecsoft in India and Dialogika in Germany. The translation software will be made available to older versions of Microsoft Office as well through a compatibility pack that adds support for Open XML.

Although it was reported in May that the OpenDocument Foundation was working on a compatibility plug-in, Microsoft's decision to spearhead the effort is quite an about-face for the Redmond company. OpenDocument has become a thorn in Microsoft's side, with a number of governments looking to move to standardized document formats.

The release of OpenOffice.org 2.0 finally provided a viable and free alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Office suite, as well as bringing OpenDocument into the limelight. ODF is backed by the OASIS standards body and was certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO). The state of Massachusetts turned up the heat last September, announcing plans to switch to ODF and OpenOffice.org by January 1, 2007.

Microsoft responded to the public pressure by developing its own Open XML formats, which it has submitted to European standards body Ecma for certification. The company has long said it would not support OpenDocument, claiming a lack of interest from customers and noting the necessity for backwards compatibility with older Microsoft Office versions.

However, Microsoft is now acknowledging the importance of interoperability and says it wants to make choice an option for its customers.

"We believe that Open XML meets the needs of millions of organizations for a new approach to file formats, so we are sharing it with the industry by submitting it, with others, to become a worldwide standard," said Microsoft XML architect Jean Paoli. "Yet it is very important that customers have the freedom to choose from a range of technologies to meet their diverse needs."

By providing a downloadable add-in that enables customers to import OpenDocument files and export to the format, Microsoft is also making Office 2007 a possibility for businesses and governments like Massachusetts that do opt to switch to ODF. But the translation will not be seamless, the company concedes.

Microsoft notes that OpenDocument still has gaps that are being worked out by OASIS, such as spreadsheet formulas, macro support and support for accessibility options. Citing Open XML's accessibility features for disabled workers, file performance and support for integrating external XML data, Microsoft says ODF "focuses on more limited requirements."

OpenDocument won't be the only third party file format supported by Office 2007. The new suite will also support saving to Adobe's PDF format through a downloadable add-in. Menu options built into the software will direct customers to a page with the free add-ins.

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