Corel Corp. has released on Wednesday a beta version of its WordPerfect Office suite, which the Ottawa-based company claims reflects a shift in the office productivity arena towards open standards compatibility.

The new WordPerfect Office version supports Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML) – a capability that spells a strong industry differentiator, said Jason Larock, the company’s director of product management for WordPerfect Office.

“As things open up, things become easier to interoperate, compatibility gets better. It’s a very positive story for the industry in general,” he said.

ODF and OOXML are freely-available and implementable XML-based file format specifications for electronic documents, like spreadsheets, charts, presentations and word processing documents.

Corel, a developer of graphics, productivity and digital media software, wants to target consumers and small-to-medium-sized businesses, said Larock, as well as CIOs of enterprise and government who typically have to address issues of long-term use of the business’s IT architecture.

Therefore, he said, the company is adopting a “format-neutral approach in terms of our vendor support, whatever will make it easier for a customer to adopt and have a long life and be able to extend their architecture is where we’re coming from.”

With the release, Corel intends to continue serving its customers in the government and legal sectors by offering them those compatibility choices, he added.

Given the large degree of interest that the public sector has for OOXML, it’s a natural target market for Corel, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with San Jose, Calif.-based research firm The Enderle Group. Furthermore, the move makes sense given the company has “always positioned itself as the product that has the strongest cross-compatibility between what Microsoft uses and other things,” he said.

Offering open format support will help Corel continue to stay relevant in light of the trend towards open standards, said Joel Martin, vice-president of enterprise applications at Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada.

“[It] will allow them to continue to say they are compatible with environments that use Microsoft Office productivity software, and they are compliant with the emerging standard for the open document format which is being pushed by the European Union as well as public sector in North America,” said Martin.

The open format support is also relevant to legal firms and SMBs that do business with the government, not to mention WordPerfect is the “value-priced alternative to Microsoft Office”, he added.

Having open format support alone, however, won’t be enough for Corel WordPerfect to break into the enterprise arena, besides strengthening the presence it already has in the legal department, Enderle said. “As far as I can tell, the corporate market is not all that interested in OOXML right now,” he said, adding that corporations are generally interested in continuing to use what they’re already using.

In fact, Corel’s beta release is probably a reflection of IBM’s launch of its OpenOffice Symphony software, said Enderle.

IBM is a “power broker in some of [Corel’s] target markets, particularly in government, with what appears to be a viable offering, puts both Microsoft and Corel at a little bit of risk. I think what Corel is doing is making sure they can defend their turf.”

Enderle added that Corel’s beta release might actually be enough to hold down the fort if they provide their customers with what they’re looking for in the product they’re already using.

But Martin doesn’t think Corel’s WordPerfect beta release has much, if anything, to do with Symphony considering IBM’s move was more along the lines of Windows SharePoint services.

“So IBM is playing catch up to a much broader Microsoft play, and Corel is focusing on maintaining a relevant second choice,” Martin said.

According to Corel’s Greg Wood, senior communications manager for office productivity, its offering “remains a leading alternative to Microsoft Office.”

“But more importantly, as things become more open and as open formats do…open up the market to better compatibility and more choice” that will further enable Corel to get its product to market, he added.

In an e-mail to ComputerWorld Canada, Advancing Open Standard of the Information Society (OASIS), a not-for-profit consortium, said “we applaud Corel for its support of the OpenDocument OASIS Standard”.

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