Microsoft Backs Open Document Format

UPDATED: Microsoft  today said it will support the Open Document Format (ODF), following pressure from governments all over the world that the software giant back the productivity standard.

The Redmond, Wash., company said it has formed the Open XML Translator project, an initiative to build a bridge between Microsoft’s own Office Open XML document format and the ODF.

With Translator, Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs will be able to read documents created in ODF, which allows text, spreadsheet and presentation files to work with one another even if they were created with different vendors’ applications.

Developed by OASIS and ratified by the International Standards Organization (ISO), ODF is used in OpenOffice, a rival productivity suite to Microsoft Office that is supported by Sun Microsystems , IBM  and others.

Microsoft said the Translator was created because governments wanted interoperability with ODF because they work with groups that use that format.

The move is a big about-face for Microsoft, which has said it would not natively support ODF, openly dismissing the standard as too “limited” to meet the demands of the market.

In a statement today, Microsoft suggested Open XML is the superior standard.

The vendor said that while Open XML formats are unique in their compatibility to billions of Office documents, ODF focuses on “more limited requirements,” and must add support for spreadsheet formulas, macros and accessibility options.

Jean Paoli, general manager of interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft, acknowledged in the statement the importance of customer choice.

Tools created under the Translator project will be developed and licensed as open source software, and are available as free, downloadable add-ins for older versions of the Microsoft Office system.

A prototype version of the first translator added to Word 2007 was posted today on the open source software development Web site Source Forge under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license.

Analysts were not surprised by the move, citing pressure from external parties.

Gartner analyst Michael Silver called Microsoft’s change of heart a step in the right direction, noting that the company is really being pushed into this by the market because some governments, and maybe some companies, will require ODF compatibility.

Redmonk Analyst Stephen O’Grady said Microsoft could not — for any number of reasons, most of them political — support ODF earlier on in the process.

“ODF support would have to be compelled by external parties, and large ones at that,” O’Grady said. “I’m sure many within Microsoft hoped that ODF would indeed fade away, but I doubt they expected that, and once it trod down the path towards ISO certification, this move was probably a given.”

But Silver said ODF is still treated somewhat separately from other document types based on the prototype.

“It does not appear that ODF can be set as the default format for saving files, and opening ODF documents is not like opening up other documents,” Silver said. “We’re not yet sure if this will be good enough to appease all ODF users, but it’s worth investigating.”

The complete version of the Word translation tool is expected to be available free from the download site by the end of the year, with add-ins for Excel and PowerPoint expected in 2007.

Older versions of Office will have access to the translation tool via a free compatibility pack.

The 2007 Microsoft Office system will include a new menu option that points users to add-ins for PDF and XML-based formats such as the XML Paper Specification (XPS) and ODF.

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