Microsoft today announced that it would update Microsoft Office 2007 to natively support ODF 1.1, but not to implement its own OOXML format. Moreover, it would also join both the OASIS ODF working group as well as the ISO/IEC JTC1 working group that has control of the ISO/IEC version of ODF. Implementation of DIS 29500, the ISO/IEC JTC 1 version of OOXML that has still not been publicly released will await the release of Office 14, the ship date of which remains unannounced.
The same announcement reveals that Office 2007 will also support PDF 1.1, PDF/A and Microsoft's competing fixed-text format, called XML Paper Specification. XML Paper Specification is currently being prepared by Ecma for submission to ISO/IEC under the same "Fast-Track" process by which OOXML had been submitted for consideration and approval.
Yesterday afternoon was when I first began to hear news through the grapevine that Microsoft's Jason Matusow (director of corporate standards) and Doug Mahugh (senior product manager for Microsoft Office) would announce native support of ODF. later in the day, I started to get email from journalists who had been alerted that Microsoft would make a format-related announcement, and were trying to figure out what it would say. Now that the announcement has been made and the first press reports are beginning to surface, there may be more questions to ask about ODF support now than there were yesterday. In this blog entry I'll review what has been said, what has not, and what questions remain.
The first reporter to break the story, according to a Google search, was David Worthington, writing for Software Developer Times. Worthington also reported that Microsoft will also join ISO Technical Committee 171, the working group responsible for PDF, and also offer an API that developers can use to develop Office plug in converters that would permit users to select another format, such as ODF, as their desired default save format.
Worthington’s story includes quotes from Matusow and Mahugh that provide intriguing insights into how the decisions were made. After noting that saving to the OASIS ODF 1.1 format would now be possible, Worthington writes:
However, the company is not quick to embrace its own creation. Mahugh stated that Microsoft would not implement the final ISO version of OOXML until Office 14 ships at an unstated date in the future. This variant of OOXML was designated ISO/IEC 29500 at the time it was certified as an ISO International standard in April.
“One way to look at it is the prioritization of formats,” Mahugh explained. “We reach a point in time where we have to decide whether to continue to invest in a previous version [of Office] or to cut the cord and move forward.”
ODF support was a priority for Microsoft, Mahugh noted, adding that “real world” customers say that there is a pressing need for PDF [AU: ODF?] support. “At this point there are no products using [ISO/IEC 29500] in the marketplace.”
When will Microsoft support its own file format? Worthingon quotes Gartner Research’s Michael Silver on that question as follows:
“Customers that are expecting true document fidelity from XML-based, ISO-standard document formats will continue to be disappointed." Silver observed that the most compatible formats to use today are Microsoft’s legacy binaries, and he believes that Microsoft will be unlikely to convince customers to move to OOXML in the foreseeable future.
So what exactly does this all mean? Let’s start with what we still don’t know.
When will the ODF feature be available? We don’t know. I’ve heard through the grapevine that we might be looking at 6 – 9 months. A formal planned ship date would obviously be useful to receive. [Update: The press release posted later in the day to the Microsoft Web site (reproduced in full below) states that Service Pack 2 (SP2), which will include support of the additiona formats, is "scheduled for the first half of 2009."]
What will the source of the function be? There are two obvious possible sources. One would be the CleverAge open source project conversion code generated by the long-running project at Source Forge funded by Microsoft. The other would be internal development. While either is possible, in comparing notes with others there are indications that development work may have been ongoing for some time to enable this function.
Under what terms will the API be made available? Until Microsoft announces to the contrary, the most logical assumption would be Microsoft’s existing Open Specification Promise (OSP). That commitment is fine for proprietary vendors and non-commercial open source use, but incompatible with commercial open source products.
Finally, and most intriguingly, Why has this announcement been made now? Clearly, Microsoft could have provided native support at any time over the last several years. Office already supports dozens of formats, and the development work for a company of Microsoft’s size would be trivial. Until now, avoiding native support has helped limit the spread of ODF-compliant software, due to the fact that documents created using such products could not as easily be exchanged with ubiquitous Office users. And while several plugins have been available for some time, adding them requires effort to locate, download and configure. Individual users are not likely to go to the bother (or may not be sophisticated enough to do so), while enterprise CIOs have more than enough to deal with already, and would be unlikely to bother until a critical mass of requests for ODF capability had built up.
Once Office users can easily open, edit and reexport files that were originally created in ODF, however, there will be less business and social pressure against creating such files. Given the quality of open source office suites such as OpenOffice, the long-delayed advent of Linux on the desktop, support for ODF in other products such as WordPerfect, and government and open source community enthusiasm for ODF-compliant products, the frequency of ODF-based files popping up in the work flows of Office-based shops can now be expected to increase much more quickly.
So that still leaves the question, why now, especially since ISO/IEC JTC1 is one formality step away from adopting OOXML as DIS 29500? Here’s where the other part of the announcement comes in: Microsoft has decided that it will not attempt to implement DIS 29500 until Office 14, the arrival date for which remains in (at least public) limbo. What to do, then, about government customers that require an ISO/IEC approved product?
That’s a problem. Alex Brown, the Convenor of the Ballot Resolution Meeting for OOXML in Geneva in February, confirmed yesterday that Ecma delivered a revised specification to ISO on March 29, but that draft remains closeted behind ISO’s doors, despite the fact that the final voting period expired at the end of March, and now even the two month appeal period is rapidly reaching a close – this despite a requirement under the applicable Directives that the release of a final draft to National Bodies should have occurred weeks ago. Until the final draft is finalized and released, final programming work cannot begin to implement it.
So what can Microsoft do to meet its customers’ requirements? Notwithstanding the pedal to the floor pressure to push OOXML through the formal standards approval process, Microsoft will lack the ability to deliver a product that complies with an ISO/IEC-approved version OOXML for the indefinite future. Moreover, investigations by the European Commission are continuing regarding Microsoft’s practices, including its conduct during the adoption of OOXML.
The most it can do, therefore, is to provide native support to that other format – ODF. A silver lining is that any added appeal for Office 2007 will provide a welcome boost for a product that continues to lag Microsoft’s originally projected sales.
One possible flaw in the above reasoning is the fact that Microsoft has announced that it will support ODF 1.1, the current OASIS version, rather than DIS 26300, the ISO-adopted specification based on OASIS ODF 1.0. Presumably this is a reflection of the fact that ODF 1.1 will be the foundation for the next version of the ISO standard, as well as the practical reality that all other ODF products in the marketplace will be built to 1.1, due to the additional functionality that it supports. Presumably government users will be more interested in buying and being able to exchange documents created using the most useful products available, rather than those that are limited by the constraints of an already dated standards release. Suddenly, it appears, Microsoft has found that indeed its customers really do want usseful native ODF support – something that it had steadfastlly denied for years.
Regardless of the motivation, today’s announcement is indeed good news for everyone that believes in open document formats in general, and in ODF in particular. Once Office users can round trip documents with ODF users and vice versa, the frequency of that process should begin to increase. Hopefully, Microsoft’s years-long delay in agreeing to participate in the ODF working group will allow better interoperability as well over time.
All of which, for now, must remain on the "wait and see" list. Here’s what to watch for in the months ahead:
1. A release date for the service pack with ODF support and for the API.
2. Whether the API will be available as open source
3. More specifically, whether the API can be used in GPL situations
4. Reviews of how good a job the upgraded suite does in round tripping ODF-generated documents of all types (text, spreadsheet and presentation).
That’s all for now. I’ll update this entry as further facts become available.
Updated 5/21/08 3:45 PM EDT: Scott M. Fulton, III, who has followed the ODF – OOXML saga from the early days, has posted an article with additional details, based on interviews with Jason Matusow and Doug Mahugh, including the following:
Beginning with Office 2007 Service Pack 2 — which for the first time, Microsoft acknowledged this morning will be available during the first half of 2009 — users will be presented with an option, both during installation and through options settings, enabling them to choose ODF as the default save format for spreadsheets, documents, and presentations. In a remarkable move that also shows how much Adobe’s format has become an independent standard in its own right, PDF format will also be offered as an optional default, as well as Microsoft’s XML Paper Specification (XPS) portable format.
This goes many steps beyond the ability to export documents to what would be considered foreign formats. With one-time settings, users will be able to say their own native format is not Office Open XML, the current default format of Office 2007, but one of these three other formats instead. This puts Office in direct functional competition not only with distributors of the OpenOffice suite such as Novell and Sun, but with Adobe’s Acrobat Professional as well. Users will still be able to save in other formats, through a selection made from the Save as type combo box in the Save as dialog box.
The full story is here. Scott indicates that he will have more information to pass along shortly. See also the Microsoft press release, below.
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Microsoft Expands List of Formats Supported in Microsoft Office
Move enhances customer choice and interoperability with Microsoft’s flagship productivity suite.
REDMOND, Wash. — May 21, 2008 — Microsoft Corp. is offering customers greater choice and more flexibility among document formats, as well as creating additional opportunities for developer and competitors, by expanding the range of document formats supported in its flagship Office productivity suite.
The 2007 Microsoft Office system already provides support for 20 different document formats within Microsoft Office Word, Office Excel and Office PowerPoint. With the release of Microsoft Office 2007 Service Pack 2 (SP2) scheduled for the first half of 2009, the list will grow to include support for XML Paper Specification (XPS), Portable Document Format (PDF) 1.5, PDF/A and Open Document Format (ODF) v1.1.
When using SP2, customers will be able to open, edit and save documents using ODF and save documents into the XPS and PDF fixed formats from directly within the application without having to install any other code. It will also allow customers to set ODF as the default file format for Office 2007. To also provide ODF support for users of earlier versions of Microsoft Office (Office XP and Office 2003), Microsoft will continue to collaborate with the open source community in the ongoing development of the Open XML-ODF translator project on SourceForge.net.
In addition, Microsoft has defined a road map for its implementation of the newly ratified International Standard ISO/IEC 29500 (Office Open XML). IS29500, which was approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in March, is already substantially supported in Office 2007, and the company plans to update that support in the next major version release of the Microsoft Office system, code-named “Office 14.”
Consistent with its interoperability principles, in which the company committed to work with others toward robust, consistent and interoperable implementations across a broad range of widely deployed products, the company has also announced it will be an active participant in the future evolution of ODF, Open XML, XPS and PDF standards.
Microsoft will join the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) technical committee working on the next version of ODF and will take part in the ISO/IEC working group being formed to work on ODF maintenance. Microsoft employees will also take part in the ISO/IEC working group that is being formed to maintain Open XML and the ISO/IEC working group that is being formed to improve interoperability between these and other ISO/IEC-recognized document formats. The company will also be an active participant in the ongoing standardization and maintenance activities for XPS and PDF. It will also continue to work with the IT community to promote interoperability between document file formats, including Open XML and ODF, as well as Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY XML), the foundation of the globally accepted DAISY standard for reading and publishing navigable multimedia content.
Microsoft is also committed to providing Office customers with the ability to open, edit and save documents in the Chinese national document file format standard, Uniform Office Format (UOF). The company does so today by supporting the continued development of the UOF-Open XML translator project on SourceForge.net, and will take additional steps to promote the distribution and ease of use of the translator. As UOF develops and achieves market adoption in China, Microsoft will distribute support for this format with Office to its customers in China.
“We are committed to providing Office users with greater choice among document formats and enhanced interoperability between those formats and the applications that implement them,” said Chris Capossela, senior vice president for the Microsoft Business Division. “By increasing the openness of our products and participating actively in the development and maintenance of document format standards, we believe we can help create opportunities for developers and competitors, including members of the open source communities, to innovate and deliver new value for customers.”
Microsoft recognizes that customers care most about real-world interoperability in the marketplace, so the company is committed to continuing to engage the IT community to achieve that goal when it comes to document format standards. It will work with the Interoperability Executive Customer Council and other customers to identify the areas where document format interoperability matters most, and then collaborate with other vendors to achieve interoperability between their implementations of the formats that customers are using today. This work will continue to be carried out in the Interop Vendor Alliance (http://www.interopvendoralliance.org), the Document Interoperability Initiative (http://www.microsoft.com/interop), and a range of other interoperability labs and collaborative venues.
“Microsoft’s support for ODF in Office is a great step that enables customers to work with the document format that best meets their needs, and it enables interoperability in the marketplace,” said Roger Levy, senior vice president and general manager of Open Platform Solutions for Novell Inc. “Novell is proud to be an industry leader in cross-platform document interoperability through our work in the Document Interoperability Initiative, the Interop Vendor Alliance and with our direct collaboration with Microsoft in our Interoperability Lab. We look forward to continuing this work for the benefit of customers across the IT spectrum.”
“The demand for a document format that everyone can use is something I hear from our customers on a regular basis,” said John D. Head, framework manager at PSC Group LLC, a Chicago headquartered information-technology and professional services consulting firm. “I am very pleased that Microsoft is enabling Microsoft Office to support ODF directly from the software. This will allow us to develop solutions that create documents that can be edited by any user, regardless of what software or operating system they use. In a world where software companies want people to select one software package for their entire user base, the reality is that different user groups and types need options. Microsoft is now enabling users to make that choice. This is a very smart move by Microsoft, and one that lets the most important person — the customer — be the winner.”
This work on document formats is only one aspect of how Microsoft is delivering choice, interoperability and innovative solutions to the marketplace. Microsoft will continue to work with its customers and partners and the rest of the industry to continue advancing in the area. More information can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/interop.
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