Move to open Office could spark tech war

Microsoft Corp. Monday said it will offer its Word, Excel and PowerPoint document formats as open standards, a move that could spark a war with technology rivals over standard document formats.

Microsoft said it would submit its Office Open XML (Extensible Markup Language) document format technology to the International Standards Organization (ISO) to be adopted as an international standard in time for the launch of the next version of its Office software suite, code-named Office 12.

The development comes as a group of technology rivals led by IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are mobilizing a global effort to push the OASIS consortium’s Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) as a global standard format for these kinds of documents.

The effort was spurred in part by a highly publicized proposal in Massachusetts requiring compliance with OpenDocument for government documents, which would mean the phasing out of Microsoft Office and its proprietary format.

Microsoft has been facing increasing pressure from governments and agencies as they have insisted on standards-compliance for their software. Microsoft executives confirmed that the move would help the company win contracts from public authorities that want software based on open standards.

“We have a few barriers [with government contracts],” said Alan Yates, general manager for Microsoft Office. “It will give governments more long-term confidence.”

Yet a key supporter of OpenDocument and steward of OpenOffice, an open-source rival to Office, said Microsoft is using the move as an “end run” around having to support OpenDocument, which has the backing of a host of vendors, including IBM, Sun, Novell Inc., Red Hat Inc., Google Inc., Apple Computer Inc. and Intel Corp. This is because companies can take a look at ISO standards, but they can’t use them to build their own applications, said Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager of and chair of the group’s governing council.

“With an open standard any application can use it,” he said. “With an ISO standard, it’s not quite the same thing. It just means you have a reference for it.”

Microsoft’s Yates admitted that the move would help Microsoft compete against OpenOffice, though he said he believed that the company was already doing so effectively.

The decision also reflects pressure from the European Commission and member governments of the European Union. Yates said that Microsoft has been asked to standardize its formats. The issue has come up at series of meetings between company executives and E.U. government officials.

Microsoft also is planning to make available tools so that old documents will be able to take advantage of the open standard. “It’s the end of closed documents,” he said.

For industry, it would offer new levels of opportunity for innovation, he said. “Developers of all kinds will rush to take advantage [of the format],” Yates predicted.

Microsoft has assembled a group of major industry users and computer firms to support its move. These include companies like Apple, U.K. oil company BP PLC, Intel and Norwegian oil company Statoil ASA.

The group will make a joint submission to the Geneva-based European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) for the XML document formats for the three Office products to become an open standard.

The ECMA’s evaluation process is expected to take around a year. Once completed, ECMA will forward a request to the ISO, which is also based in Geneva.

Microsoft’s Yates explained that the timing had been chosen to ensure that the XML formats became open standards in time for the launch of Office 12 toward the end of next year.

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