Microsoft Claims It's Format-Agnostic in Appeal to Chinese Office Users

A rapidly growing number of modern-era software users in an economically revitalized China has catapulted that country's own state-sponsored XML-based office file format, called Uniform Office Format, into world prominence in just a matter of a few months.

Now, in the wake of Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy's call to consider merging UOF with the other open-source format, ODF, Microsoft revealed yesterday (Monday morning Beijing time) that it had already launched a project with Beihang University to create an open-source, two-way translator between UOF and the Office 2007 Open XML file formats, just two weeks after McNealy's speech.

The project, whose homepage now appears on SourceForge.net, lists one of its primary goals as enabling Word 2007 and Word 2003 to read and write in UOF format. While UOF has application support for Chinese characters, as a format, it's not language-specific. So users in any country could conceivably adopt UOF as their format of choice.

In 2002, the Chinese government selected an application suite called RedOffice over Microsoft's, partly due to its support of an open XML file format - at that time, ODF. But the government then funded the creation of UOF not as an expansion or extension of ODF, as many reported, but as an outright replacement.

The foundations of both formats are quite different, and an argument exists for UOF's inherent superiority, specifically due to a more efficient and expedient way of encoding documents with multiple styles.

There are an estimated 18 million new desktop computer users in China every year, and RedOffice's shift to UOF support means the format is soon being elevated to global market contender status. A UOF / ODF converter project exists, though some say progress there may be too slow. If Microsoft intends to maintain its own contender status there, interoperability with UOF may be critically necessary.

With a Beijing University study listing a multitude of non-argumentative, yet persuasive reasons why UOF and ODF may be interoperable but could not merge, Microsoft's move may have a double-bonus effect for the company: It can be perceived as partnering with what might inevitably become the leading open-source format on the planet, while at the same time boxing its arch-rival ODF -- used by OpenOffice.net, one version of which is distributed by Sun -- into an unprecedented #3 position.

To that end, the company's "interoperability czar," Jean Paoli, sounded a format-agnostic tone in yesterday's announcement. "Everyone wants to use their data in slightly different ways," reads Paoli's prepared statement. "That's why we are enabling customers to pick from whatever format they want to use with their Office documents - whether it's ODF, Open XML, PDF, or new standards like UOF."

Last week, Microsoft voted in favor of ODF's ratification by the ANSI organization. In two weeks, at TechEd 2007 in Orlando, the company has scheduled to reveal more information about interoperability projects for its Ecma Open XML format.

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