Microsoft Yields: Will Adopt Open Document Formats

In an apparent effort to respond to Massachusetts’ Governor Mitt Romney’s plan to adopt a so-called OpenDocument format for storing state documents by 2007, a move that could eventually cause the state to remove Microsoft’s Office software from its computers, Microsoft announced in November that it would submit its Office Open XML (XML) to the standards body Ecma International, at their December meeting, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Massachusetts is the first state to adopt a plan for open proprietary-free format for storing electronic documents, The AP said in a separate report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


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The Massachusetts plan “seeks to ensure that the state’s electronic records can easily be read, exchanged and modified now and in the future, free of licensing restrictions and compatibility problems as software evolves,” the AP report said. Programs currently available that support OpenDocument format are OpenOffice, a free product, and StarOffice, offered by Sun Microsystems, Inc.

If the Geneva-based Ecma accepts the Microsoft Office Open XML format and submits it to the International Standards Organization (ISO) as a standard, “customers will have a choice” between OpenDocument and Office Open XML, Alan Yates, General Manager of Office for Microsoft told the New York Times. OpenDocument was submitted to the ISO in September by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), according to Computerworld.

Adding to the pressure on Microsoft from Massachusetts to open their formats, government bodies such as the European Union have said that proprietary formats for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation files could mean incompatibility in the future for archived files, Computerworld reported. Businesses sometimes follow government database managers, according to the AP.

Microsoft had announced in June that as a feature of their next version of Office software, Office 12, Open XML would make it easier for outside programs to read documents created in Word, Excel and Powerpoint, but stopped short of saying that Office 12 would support open document formats, according to an AP report on Boston.com. The company held off announcing their intention to meet a standard for open document format, according to Alan Yates in the AP report, because “We felt it was important to have real software and real technology to submit to Ecma International.”

Romney spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said that Microsoft’s decision to seek approval of their standard reduced the possibility that Massachusetts would eventually remove Office from their computers, the AP said. Frank Gilbane, of Bluebill Advisors, Inc. a computer industry consulting firm, said, according to the AP, that Microsoft’s decision to submit their document format to Ecma “is probably something they would have to do eventually. But the fact that they’ve done that will probably take away a huge number of objections.”

Louis Suarez-Potts, writing for openoffice.org, welcomed the Microsoft decision saying that office software users have come to realize that their real investment is “in the spreadsheets, databases, and word processing documents which they have created: their own intellectual property.” Suarez-Potts questions the need for a new standard, however. “OpenDocument . . . is approved by OASIS – the standards body for XML data formats in business; OASIS is sponsored by all the leading names in IT, including Microsoft.”

Microsoft will license Open Office XML for free and will not sue any company building software using the file formats, Computer World says. Co-sponsors of its submission to Ecma include Apple Computer Inc., BP PLC and IntelCorp.

Rival OpenDocument is backed by IBM, Novell Inc., and Sun Microsystems, Inc., ComputerWorld reports.

Using open document formats is not painless, ComputerWorld reports. Peggi Douglass, IT director at Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) said that she would only switch her department’s computers from Microsoft Office if the state mandated the change. Douglass told ComputerWorld that although OpenOffice is free, the cost of retraining employees alone would ensure that using it wouldn’t be cheaper than staying with Office.

When Sun Microsystems mandated that its own employees use StarOffice, Craig Steele, an IT consultant at Progrent Corp., a firm that partnered with Sun, had to resave all the files he sent to Sun employees. “It made it a pain to work with them,” he said.

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