Microsoft Falls Back Again: Announces ODF Plugin Project

In the latest in a series of concessions to the rising popularity of ODF, Microsoft announced yesterday that it has quietly been supporting the development of its own set of plugins to enable conversion of documents to and from Microsoft Office to software products that support ODF. The news is being treated in the press as "new news," but in fact Ray Ozzie let slip mention of the project last October, and an open source converter project was started by the same French company last September 26.  I'll more to say about this below, but first, let's briefly review what the press release has to say.

The new converter tools will be made available under the BSD open source license, and will be made "broadly available to the industry for use with other individual or commercial projects to accelerate document interoperability and expand customer choice between Open XML and other technologies."  The tools will also be available as free downloads for use with older versions of Office, and are being created in cooperation with several partners: French IT solution provider Clever Age, and "several independent software vendors, including Aztecsoft in India and Dialogika in Germany."  A prototype of the first converter (for MS Word) has already been contributed to an open source project at 

While Microsoft had previously stated that there was insufficient customer interest in ODF to justify supporting ODF in Office, it explains this partial concession in its press release as follows:

This work is in response to government requests for interoperability with ODF because they work with constituent groups that use that format…"By enabling this translator, we will make both choice and interoperability a more practical option for our customers," said Jean Paoli, general manager of interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft.

While the specific details of the press release are of interest, the fact that Microsoft would support the creation of a plugin is not itself new information.  In fact, last September, ZDNet’s Dan Farber reported on the following conversation with Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie in a brief blog entry dated October 25:

Microsoft is working with a French company on translators to determine the scope of the problem in exporting Office documents to ODF. It sounds to me that support for “Save As” ODF in Office is a “when,” not and “if.”

As Pamela Jones’ troops ferreted out within a matter of hours, that French company was in fact Clever Age, which in fact had initiated a SourceForge project on September 26 called OpenOffice filter to Microsoft Word XML, which you can still review here.  You can also read more about the initial Clever Age project at Pamela’s October 27 story at Groklaw, and she has quite a bit more to say about the new announcement here.

All of which makes yesterday’s announcement all the more interesting with respect to timing.  Clearly, Microsoft has been hedging its bets for quite a while, by supporting the development of conversion tools, but holding off on letting it be known that switching to ODF compliant software would be less of an issue than otherwise would have appeared to be the case.

In fact, as recently as May 19, Microsoft made no mention of its converter project when it responded to the Massachusetts RFI requesting information on exactly that topic.

So why now?  I suspect that the recent wave of news from Europe in general in support of ODF, and the announcement made in June by Belgium in particular, led to this latest fall back in defensive position by Microsoft.

How many concessions have there been to date?  Even prior to the approval of ODF by Massachusetts last year, Microsoft had already loosened up its source code licensing terms form government customers.  With the announcement of the early drafts by the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) of its new open standards-based Enterprise Technical Reference Model, those concessions accelerated, including the following:

  • Spring 2005:  Promises ITD to further loosen licensing terms for XML Reference Schema in attempt to gain inclusion on approved format list
  • November 11, 2005:  Announces “OpenXML” will be submitted to Ecma
  • November 23, 2005:  Covenant not to sue announced
  • March 21, 2006:  Announces Open XML Formats Developers Group

What does this latest concession mean in the grander scheme of things?  Most significantly, it clearly makes it easier for governments and other users to feel safe in making the switch from Office to ODF-supporting software, since Microsoft itself will be collaborating to make document exchanges smooth and effortless. Critics of the Massachusetts (and Danish, French and Belgian) initiative will now know that not only will Massachusetts government workers and the keepers of public records be able to easily exchange documents, but those with disabilities may simply continue to use Office as their peers convert to ODF software, later changing over themselves when accessibility tools for ODF software become available.

Obviously, Microsoft realizes that ODF is not going to go away, and that it is necessary to adjust its strategy accordingly.  I expect that this latest concession won’t be the last, as Microsoft’s defensive perimeter continues to shrink.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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