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Microsoft's Battle Lines Shifting to Office?

Microsoft and Sun Microsystems may have ironed out their differences long enough to get Sun to join the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), but they already seem to be redrawing battle lines over standards.

On Wednesday, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), of which both Microsoft and Sun are members, formed a new technical committee to advance an XML-based file format specification for office applications, intended to help standardize data for content creation and management applications.

The new OASIS Open Office XML Format Technical Committee will base its work off of the XML file format specification designed by Sun for its OpenOffice.org 1.0 project -- an open source office productivity suite which Sun hopes will help it break open Microsoft's grip on the office productivity application market.

"Our goal is to achieve consensus on an open standard that will protect content -- whether it is an 800-page airplane specification or a legal contract -- from being locked into a proprietary file format," said Sun's Michael Brauer, chair of the new technical committee. "A standard method for processing and interchanging office documents will enable companies to own their data and freely choose tools to view and edit information long after originating applications have come and gone."

That appears to be a direct assault on the XML-based technology Microsoft has been developing for the forthcoming Office 11 update of its Office applications family. By using XML throughout the Office suite, Microsoft aims to make content generated in the applications fully portable from application to application.

"Microsoft's vision for Office 11 is to seamlessly connect the information worker to the different islands of data in the enterprise, whether the data is contained in Microsoft Word documents, email messages, an internal company database, or even an external third-party database," Jean Paoli, the XML architect at Microsoft and a co-creator of the W3C's XML 1.0 specification, said in October.

A Microsoft spokesperson told internetnews.com Thursday, "When you use an industry standard like XML to open up the data inside a document (as Microsoft is doing with Office products), you allow that data to be used by any program, on any platform. You can then create specialized tags that belong to your business and your industry, resulting in business information that is never locked into a proprietary set of tags. Therefore, you are able to define XML the way you define your business and use XML the way you want it."

OASIS' new technical committee is notable in that Microsoft, which owns more than 90 percent of the office productivity application market, is not a member. Instead the committee was founded by Sun, Corel, Arbortext, Drake Certivo and Boeing.

"We're aware of the OASIS group and are still evaluating whether participation in the future makes the most sense for our customers," a Microsoft spokesperson said. "At the moment, however, we don't see any benefit for our customers, as Office 11 will already have great support for XML."

Analysts were not surprised by Microsoft's stance.

"Microsoft sees Office as the "ultimate" rich client for XML and Web Services on the desktop, and they're right," said Ronald Schmelzer, senior analyst with XML and Web services research firm ZapThink. "They are going to be turning Office 11 into more than just a suite of office applications, but into a productivity center that most people can run their daily operations off of. Excel, Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint serve the basis for most individual's daily tasks in any case."

He added, "So, clearly, Sun, Corel, the Linux folks, and anyone else with desktop aspirations sees this trend as poisonous to their own efforts. They don't want Microsoft to get any more hold on the market than they currently have, and by controlling the "format," they believe they can control the features. Basically, if Microsoft can't come out with some proprietary feature that is supported by the data format, then their innovation will be stifled. Obviously, Microsoft doesn't want to kow-tow with any group that could potentially stifle their innovation.

"So, their stance makes a heck of a lot of sense. Why should they join with these folks? If the OASIS body wants to come out with an XML format for Office-type applications, then Microsoft would be happy to support that in addition to their own XML formats. However, for them to join the body would imply that they would comply with those standards, and I just don't see that happening."

Fellow ZapThink Senior Analyst Jason Bloomberg added that without Microsoft's cooperation, the OASIS technical committee may just be blowing in the wind.

"The big question is whether Microsoft not being a member of the Open Office XML Format Technical Committee makes the whole affair a moot point -- after all with 90+ percent of the office app market, a standards effort without Microsoft looks pretty silly on the face of it," he said. "However, Microsoft is committed to supporting the core XML standards, including XSD 1.0 (XML Schema Definition), so if the work OASIS does in this committee is compatible with XSD 1.0, then Microsoft Office will, at least in theory, conform to the new Open Office standard.

"So, are Sun, Corel, and the others looking to take market share away from Microsoft? Of course. Is Microsoft worried? Very little, if at all. After all, if Microsoft's customers demanded they support this new OASIS standard, then Microsoft would have no trouble doing so. So as usual, Microsoft is holding all the cards."