News

Microsoft Edges Closer to OpenDoc

Microsoft said this week it has started an open-source project on the SourceForge collaborative software development management site to create free translators that can transform Office Open XML documents into OpenDocument format and vice versa.

Microsoft is collaborating with France-based IT solution provider Clever Age and several independent software vendors, including Aztecsoft in India and Dialogika in Germany, the company said in a statement.

A prototype version of the first translator added to Word 2007 was posted Wednesday on the SourceForge site.

A finished release of the Word translation tool is expected to be available free by the end of 2006, with add-ins for Excel and PowerPoint promised for 2007. Users of older Office versions will be able to get the translator via a free compatibility pack, which will also provide free updates to enable Open XML format support.

This somewhat dramatic change comes after years of acrimony between the company and the open source OpenDocument Format's (ODF) supporters. [ODF is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).]

However, the code is licensed under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license rather than the so-called GNU General Public License (GPL), which is far more common in the open source world -- but highly deprecated by Microsoft.

Still, the move definitely brightened the outlook for interchangeability between the two formats.

"We are delighted that Microsoft has decided to stop being unremitting and negative about [OpenDoc] interoperability," OpenDocument gadfly and Sun Microsystems' chief open source officer, Simon Phipps, said in an interview. Phipps has been one of the most vocal of ODF's proponents.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's own submission to European standards body ECMA International is making its way through the standardization process, but may never reach the level of adoption that ODF seems to already be achieving in Europe. In fact, the translator project is based on work done within the ECMA process, according to Microsoft statements.

As its hopes of controlling any official document standard -- other than a powerful de facto one based on its application hegemony -- fade, Microsoft may be at least partly driving the company to become more flexible.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the IEC jointly announced in May that they had ratified the ODF, the origins of which began in Sun's StarOffice and the open source OpenOffice, as a standard meant to enable documents from various desktop applications to be interchangeable. For many observers, this means that Microsoft's efforts to achieve an equivalent adoption by ISO are unlikely to be successful.

"The newly approved ISO/IEC 26300, Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0, has been designed to be used as a default file format for office applications with no increase in file size or loss of data integrity," said a joint ISO/IEC statement announcing ratification in May.

OpenDocument -- also referred to as OpenDoc but not related to an earlier IBM technology of the same name -- is a competitor to Microsoft's Office Open XML. Both are based on XML vocabularies, but Microsoft's technology, while royalty free, is proprietary, critics observe.

Microsoft's statement released online said the move was made to satisfy customers, especially government bodies, that need such document interchangeability.

The announcement wasn't without its sniping, however. Phipps pointed out on his weblog that, despite all of Microsoft's make nice behavior, the current release of the translator is intentionally difficult to use and results in OpenDoc files becoming read-only when imported into Word. A later version will support read and write import and export capabilities, he said.

At least one analyst hailed the move.

While applauding Microsoft's move towards interchangeability, that leaves several puzzles -- chief among them: "I scratch my head and wonder: Why doesn't Microsoft just more directly work with the OASIS group with respect to reducing the technical issues?" said JupiterResearch senior operating systems analyst Joe Wilcox in a posting on his Weblog.

Sun's Phipps says he already has the red carpet rolled out. "I'd like to invite them to join the ODF Alliance and we would like to see them on the ODF technical committee (within OASIS)...Microsoft would be extremely welcome there," Phipps added.

The current version of the translator is available here.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.