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A Ballot for Microsoft Office Users In Europe?

It appears that European consumers may be soon voting for more than just what browser they want to use with Windows.

If the European Commission (EC), the European Union's (EU) executive branch, agrees, buyers of Microsoft Office will vote on what file format they want to use as their default, including the OpenDocument Format or ODF.

The revelation is contained in one of two documents that the company sent to the EC late last month -- this second document was largely overlooked two weeks ago.

In the first document, the one that got all the attention, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) agreed on July 24 to allow Windows users to choose which of the top browsers -- including Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Opera, and, of course, Internet Explorer (IE) -- they want to use as their default.

The EC competition directorate responded mostly positively to Microsoft's offer -- a move which may help the EC and Microsoft come to terms over the current case, which surrounds Microsoft's bundling of IE with Windows going back to 1996.

In the second document, which is also dated July 24, Microsoft appears to be trying to put a stop to a second antitrust probe by the EC before it really gets started.

That case has not yet become an open sore for Microsoft but could do so at any time.

The probe involving Office file formats began in January 2008 with a complaint from the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a trade group that includes several key Microsoft rivals, including Oracle, Opera, IBM, Adobe, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems.

"In the complaint by ECIS, Microsoft is alleged to have illegally refused to disclose interoperability information across a broad range of products, including information related to its Office suite, a number of its server products, and also in relation to the so called .NET Framework," the EC's press release regarding the second probe states.

On the ballot list are Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) formats – the default file formats for its Office productivity applications. Microsoft succeeded, some say by hook or crook, in establishing OOXML as a standard by the International Organization for Standards (ISO). Also on the list is its co-standard -- the Open Document Format (ODF).

Picking your Office file format

Although the second document does not say specifically how Microsoft users will choose the default format the first time they fire up Office, the intent is clear enough.

"Beginning with the release of Office 14 [2010], end users that purchase Microsoft’s Primary PC Productivity Applications in the EEA [European Economic Area] in both the OEM and retail channel will be prompted in an unbiased way to select default file format (from options that include ODF) for those applications upon the first boot of any one of them," the document said.

The offer also promises that Microsoft will make the requested interoperability information available to competitors, including details of its legacy binary file formats.

"Microsoft shall make Interoperability Information available to interested undertakings relative to file formats used by Microsoft Office Word, PowerPoint and Excel that allows third-party Software Products to open, manipulate, save, exchange and share documents created by Microsoft’s PC Productivity Applications without a loss of … information or any instructions in the file that describe the document's formatting characteristics," the Microsoft document states.

A spokesperson for the EC's competition directorate could not be reached due to the EC's month-long summer holiday.