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Microsoft Aims to Provide Customers with Choice for Document File Formats


Since the launch of the 2007 Microsoft Office system this year, a thriving community has emerged around the Ecma Open XML file formats (also known in standards circles as ECMA-376) because of the formats’ many capabilities, including backwards compatibility with billions of existing documents and support for user-defined schema. But despite the rising popularity of this new international standard, Microsoft also realized that some customers may want to work with other formats, including the OpenDocument Format (ODF) 1.0, and committed itself to providing customers with choice, and to addressing the need for document interoperability.

In the last year, Microsoft intensified its ongoing efforts to identify and meet the interoperability needs of its customers. With the creation of the Interoperability Vendor Alliance and the formation of the Interoperability Executive Customer Council in 2006, Microsoft has redoubled its efforts to clarify customer interoperability needs and works to address them through collaboration with customers and other vendors.

In keeping with this philosophy, Microsoft has not only funded the creation of translation tools to interoperate between the ECMA-376 and ODF 1.0 formats for Microsoft Office users, but the company also voted on Wednesday to add ODF 1.0 to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) list. PressPass spoke with Tom Robertson, Microsoft’s general manager for Interoperability & Standards, to find out more.

PressPass: What is ANSI?

Robertson: The American National Standards Institute is a private, nonprofit organization that oversees the development of standards for products, services, processes, systems and personnel in the United States. The organization also coordinates U.S. standards with international standards so that American products can be used worldwide. In fact, the ANSI-accredited International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS) serves as the United States Technical Advisory Group for the work ANSI does with the International Standard Organization (ISO). Members of the INCITS executive board include Apple, Hewlett-Packard Corporation, IBM Corporation, Intel Corporation, Microsoft, Oracle Corporation, Sony Corporation, and others.

PressPass: What is the ANSI vote on the ODF 1.0 all about?

Robertson: ODF 1.0 has been adopted by ISO for approximately a year now. It’s a fairly common practice for ANSI to conduct a public review of new ISO standards to determine whether they should be added to the American National Standards list. We’re expecting it to be a pretty straightforward vote, although we likely won’t hear the final tally from ANSI on the outcome until later on Thursday.

PressPass: What is Microsoft’s position on ODF?

Robertson: We see ODF serving a different need than other document format standards that exist in the market, such as the Ecma Open XML formats. The Open XML formats, for example, were designed to enable people to work with the billions of existing Office documents and to support user defined schema. ODF, while also based on XML, was designed to support the functionality provided by the OpenOffice and StarOffice products. So there are some important differences in what the formats can do, and we think it’s important to let customers choose whatever format they prefer to use.

We know that customers may want to use both Open XML and ODF, so we are taking steps to give Office 2007 users the ability to do so, just as Novell and Corel are taking steps to ensure that users of their products can work with Open XML documents. We voted for addition of ODF 1.0 to the American National Standards list because this is consistent with our view that users should be able to choose the document format standard that best meets their needs.

PressPass: Why did Microsoft work with others to standardize the Office Open XML formats in Ecma International?

Robertson: We have long recognized the power of XML based document formats and have over a number of years and releases of Office increased our support for them. They are now the default file formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint in the 2007 Office system. Over time we have heard from customers and other vendors a request for three things:

That they’d like the formats documented,

That they want access to the Microsoft patents needed to implement the formats – either in their entirety or in part – for free to the entire community, and

That they’d like to have the formats become standardized and managed by a well known international standards development organization.

We have done all of this culminating in the standardization of Open XML in Ecma International.

Together with a wide range of technology companies, large users of document formats and government archival institutions like the British Library and the U.S. Library of Congress, we worked intensively for nearly a year to develop the final Open XML specification. During this time the specification grew from about 2,000 pages to over 6,000 pages. Open XML was adopted as an Ecma International standard by a vote of 20:1 in December 2006, with IBM being the sole vote against standardization. But most critically, the ongoing ownership of the formats is now in the hands of Ecma International, which is also seeking its ratification by ISO.

Because of the work Ecma and companies such as Apple, Intel, NextPage, Toshiba, and others who were on the technical committee, the Open XML formats are now fully documented and available for use by anyone in the community, and vendors such as Novell, Dataviz, and Numeric are already making use of them in their solutions.

Technology providers, as well as customers around the globe, are able to trust that they can freely use these formats, and that there will be a rich ecosystem supporting the file formats, both now and in the future.

PressPass: What is the benefit to customers of doing this?

Robertson: Customers own the data in their documents and want new and innovative ways of getting access to and use of that data. Open XML is an advance over existing formats and opens up exciting possibilities for customers and the IT companies that are building new solutions for them. It also gives the British Library, the U.S. Library of Congress – who helped create this standard – and other users interested in long-term archival solutions the peace of mind that they can store and access documents for generations to come.

PressPass: What is the benefit to partners of the Ecma Open XML formats? And is there a potential benefit to competitors here?

Robertson: With the standardization of Office XML file formats, and Microsoft’s making any patents needed to implement all or part of it available for free, partners are free to use the formats to deliver higher quality solutions to their customers. Customers want new and innovative ways to access data previously locked in documents and use it seamlessly in their business processes, regardless of whether they are using Microsoft technologies or those developed by other vendors. Partners will find many opportunities for innovating to meet these needs using Open XML. Competitors will, as well. We already see Novell, Corel and others doing so.

In the end, customers have told us they want solutions that preserve interoperability while maintaining their right to choose from whatever format best suits their needs. Because at the end of the day, they know their data needs best.


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