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Microsoft Wants Open XML as Doc Standard

Microsoft , feeling the heat from one open standard for Office documents, is championing another.

The company is submitting its Microsoft Office Open XML file format to Ecma International as an open-standard submission with the hope it will one day become an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard.

The file format is the underlying document standard to be used in the next edition of Office.

Additionally the company is moving the schema away from its royalty-free licensing to a simpler "covenant not to sue" to garner more support from the community, Brian Jones, Office program manager, noted in his blog.

"This is obviously a huge step forward and it really helps to increase the value of these document formats because of the improved transparency and interoperability," he stated. "This will help to create a large ecosystem built around these formats that will support them in a large number of different scenarios for customers."

Joining Microsoft in the standards push is Apple , Intel , BP, the British Library, Toshiba, Barclays Capital, Essilor, NextPage and Statoil ASA. The group will co-sponsor the file format and form the core team of a technical committee within Ecma International with other members free to join the process.

In addition to getting community and industry support, Microsoft wants to create an environment similar to Adobe's near-ubiquitous Reader.

Microsoft intends to provide 100 percent backward capability to all previous versions of Office in the new version, as well as add-ons to existing editions, starting with Office 2000, to open Office Open XML documents, the company said.

Laura DiDio, a research fellow at the Yankee Group, said that while people might be skeptical of this latest move by Redmond, it is a good one. It gives the company more say in what's accomplished in the standards process, she said.

"Basically, they have to do this," she said. "They might not want to do it because there's always that fear at Microsoft -- or with any proprietary vendor -- that, 'if we integrate we're going to be subsumed,' but that's not how people look at it. End users and developers want to go in there and say, 'we need to do what we want to do. We don't care about the vendor wars.'"

She said the developer community is going to be watching this standards process to see if Microsoft is really committed to a stable, truly open schema. If they prove themselves, she said, you can expect to see a lot of value-added applications using the file format.

"Your simple Office templates could be the front-end interfaces with a lot of back-end enterprise applications and line-of-business systems," she said. "All sorts of things could happen. You could create things like invoices and you wouldn't have to train them on a lot of proprietary, complex systems." This latest move has a lot to do with recent events in the file format community.

The company was dealt a blow when the IT office for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts opted for the OpenDocuments file format as the default for any Office documents beginning January 2007.

The standard, ratified earlier this year, came out of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), of which Microsoft is a member. However, Redmond decided to go outside to Ecma to gain status as an industry standard.

According to an online question-and-answer piece, Jean Paoli, Microsoft's XML architecture senior director, said Ecma has been an industry association since 1961. Of Ecma's 350 published standards, he stated, two-thirds have gone on to be adopted as an international standard.

Microsoft has worked with Ecma in the past as well, he noted, helping with the adoption of ECMAScript, C# and the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI ) as standards.