You’d think that Microsoft’s critics would be pleased that the company plans to add native support for the competing OpenDocument Format (ODF) to Office 2007 within a year.
Instead, many went on the attack.
The software titan said Wednesday that Office 2007 Service Pack 2 (SP2) will let users select ODF 1.1 as the default format for saving and retrieving files in Office.
ODF is the major competition for the Microsoft-originated Office Open XML (OOXML) document interchange format. The company plans to ship Office 2007 SP2 in the first half of 2009.
The announcement is one of several moves Microsoft officials say it’s making to improve Office’s openness and its ability to interoperate with competing products and formats in response to customer demand.,
However, not all ODF supporters are applauding Microsoft’s promise to add built-in interoperability for the format into future Office versions.
Instead, some suggested it was a stopgap measure in response to its inability to implement its own recently-standardized OOXML format. In an ironic turn of events, the format has become inoperable with Office, despite the fact that OOXML began as Office 2007’s default file format.
“Why will Microsoft [support ODF] after so many years of refusal?” wrote ODF supporter Andy Updegrove, a Linux Foundation board member, in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.
“Perhaps because the only way it will be able to deliver a product to government customers for some time that meets an ISO [International Organization for Standardization] document format standard may be by finally taking the plunge, and supporting ‘that other format,'” Updegrove said.
Microsoft officials contend OOXML support will come too, although not until the company ships the next major release of its productivity application suite — codenamed “Office 14”. (Codename watchers take note: Office 2007 had been codenamed “Office 12”, and there will be no product named “Office 13”.)
The company has yet to confirm a date for Office 14, but published reports suggest it may also ship in the first half of 2009.
Other critics simply don’t trust Microsoft.
“Because Microsoft has a history of broken promises, no one should celebrate this news until we see what is actually done and how quickly it is put in place,” Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s interoperability chief tried to remain philosophical about the outcry.
“There are people who will find fault with any step that we take,” Jason Matusow, senior director of interoperability at the company, told InternetNews.com.
Other industry watchers are chiming in to support Microsoft’s announced plan to integrate ODF support and make good on earlier promises of increased openness.
“There are people who think that any move by Microsoft is nefarious,” Guy Creese, vice president and research director for collaboration and content strategies at the Burton Group, told InternetNews.com. “I think it is a brilliant political move … when they say, ‘We support ODF,’ they really mean it. It adds some action to the words.”
For ODF supporters, however, the outcry also signals continuing, international frustration with the software giant.
“The ODF Alliance effort is bearing real fruit around the world,” Ken Wasch, president of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) and a longtime critic of Microsoft, told InternetNews.com. “Everywhere else but the U.S., putting a stick in Microsoft’s eye gets you a medal.”
An epic conflict over standards
Much of the battle over document interchange formats has been driven by governments’ need to archive electronic records for the same length of time required to save old paper documents — in some cases, hundreds of years.
Establishing format standards is seen as important because they can ensure documents won’t be rendered inaccessible over time as proprietary formats change. This puts the onus on software makers to support standards or face the possibility of being frozen out of lucrative government bids.
Microsoft, however, frames its latest moves as part of fulfilling a company-wide interoperability initiative that it announced in February. The move also satisfies assurances it made when OOXML — now known by its ISO-assigned designation of “IS29500” — was being considered for standards status.
While OOXML started out as the default file format for Office 2007, it’s since become inoperable with Office thanks to a myriad of changes made during the ISO standards process.
To pass muster with the 87 nations that participated in the ISO standards-setting process, Microsoft and European standards body Ecma International made a number of revisions to OOXML.
While Office 2007 is no longer compliant with the newly minted standard, the company said last month it fully intends to sync Office back up with IS29500.
The rival OpenDocument Format, meanwhile, originated from the file formats of the open source OpenOffice.org productivity applications suite and its commercial sibling, Sun’s StarOffice. The format became an ISO standard in 2006.
ODF supporters fought tooth and nail to derail Microsoft’s attempts to have Office 2007’s native file formats also ratified as an ISO standard.
They contended that a second standard for document interchange was unneeded, and that Microsoft intended to undermine ODF, confuse the marketplace and supplant that format with its own, proprietary, solution.
Despite the debate, OOXML/IS29500 became ratified as a second document interchange standard in late March.
Asking for more trouble?
In addition to pledging to support ODF and to fix OOXML compliance, Microsoft also is making still further promises relating to interoperability.
For one thing, the company is also joining the technical committees that help guide ODF. Microsoft said it would join the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) technical committee, which is working on the next version of ODF.
It also said it would join the ISO committee set up to maintain ODF. Microsoft is already a member of the ISO technical committee that oversees IS29500.
Besides working with ODF, though, Microsoft also announced that Office 2007 SP2 will add native support for its XML Paper Specification (XPS), as well as XPS’s competitors, Adobe’s (NASDAQ: ADBE) Portable Document Format (PDF) version 1.5 and PDF/A.
Needless to say, all eyes will be on Microsoft as it fulfills its interoperability promises — or fails to.
After “all the rhetoric on both sides over the approval of OOXML, it’s critical for Microsoft to deliver on their promises to work in this world of open standards,” Charles King, principal analyst at researcher Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com.
“Given the amount of bad blood out there, Microsoft is going to be under the microscope,” King added.
Competitive pressures aren’t the only problems that Microsoft faces regarding file formats.
For instance, Microsoft is still awaiting the results of two probes by the European Commission (EC) — one specifically regarding whether or not OOXML/IS29500 is adequately “open” for competitors.
Additionally, published reports have suggested that the EC is also investigating whether Microsoft strongarmed ISO bodies into approving OOXML.
David Needle, InternetNews.com’s West Coast bureau chief, contributed to this report.