In a tacit acknowledgment of the OpenDocument Format's (ODF) increased momentum, Microsoft announced Thursday that it will back an open-source project to create software allowing Microsoft Office users to open and save files in ODF.
The project, to be hosted on Sourceforge.net, will be led by three independent software vendors (ISVs) funded by Microsoft and is open to all developers, according to Tom Robertson, general manager for standards and interoperability for Microsoft.
The goal is a free plug-in that allows users to natively save files in ODF within Office, as well as convert files in Office 2007's OpenXML format to ODF and back. That plug-in is expected by December, with similar plug-ins for Excel and PowerPoint expected in 2007, according to Jean Paoli, Microsoft's general manager for interoperability and XML architecture.
The Belgian and Danish governments both announced last month that they will move to ODF, a free XML file format approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in May. They join Massachusetts, which said in September it would begin migrating state employees to ODF by Jan. 1, 2007.
Norway and France are also considering ODF, which proponents argue is better at ensuring long-term accessibility to documents and opens the door for organizations to use alternative productivity software, including OpenOffice.org and Sun Microsystems's StarOffice.
"XML is good, standardized XML is good and choice is good. This is an interesting announcement," said Louis Gutierrez, CIO for Massachusetts. Gutierrez, who took over at the beginning of the year, told Computerworld earlier this year that he had suggested to Microsoft that they create a plug-in that would translate between OpenXML -- the native file format of Office 2007 -- and ODF.
Rebuffed at the time, Gutierrez in May sought information on potential plug-ins from third-party software vendors. Sun and five smaller ISVs responded.
A Belgian officials praised the Microsoft move. "This is an important commitment regarding software interoperability. Hence, we're extremely pleased by this announcement by Microsoft," said Peter Vanvelthoven, Belgian minister of employment and computerization. Belgium approved the use of ODF June 23, but said it will also use Microsoft's OpenXML format if it is accepted as a standard by ISO.
The three firms working on the Microsoft-sponsored plug-in -- Paris-based Clever Age, which has written most of the code thus far, India's AztecSoft, which will test it, and Germany's Dialogika, which will test and help implement the finished product -- were not among the respondents to Massachusetts.
According to Paoli, Clever Age approached Microsoft last year after some initial development. "They started having good results, so we asked them to continue," he said.
Microsoft is providing an undisclosed amount of money to the three firms creating the plug-in, which is expected to let users convert multiple files at the same time.
"No translator will be perfect. OpenXML we believe is more fully-featured than other XML formats. So some formatting will be lost in the translation," Paoli said.
Until now, Microsoft has publicly declined to make OpenXML compatible with ODF, saying any such move would stifle its own innovation. But Robertson admitted that the company had been discussing that option with government customers for months.
Besides bankrolling the project, Microsoft will only provide technical assistance. In other words, the project is fully open-source and not run by the company.
"Clever Age is the owner of the project, but as in any good open-source project, anyone can participate, anyone can modify or develop on top of it. We are not a gatekeeper in any way," Paoli said. The plug-ins will work with the upcoming Office 2007, as well as for older versions of Office, he said.
Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, said that while Microsoft's move was "inevitable," it goes against the company's normal tactics.
"One of Microsoft's most important principles has been to control standards, don't let others set standards for you. When that has happened, they have regretted it," DeGroot said. "They might succeed in marginalizing ODF, but they also give away any clout in future ODF discussions and risk the possibility that customers who care deeply about format longevity and longterm document accessibility will go with ODF rather than Office XML."
DeGroot said the move is a "half-way measure" by Microsoft, who he says "would do a whole lot better if they would just bite the bullet and do this themselves. If they did, anyone who bought Office would have it, and Microsoft would support it. In my view, they're setting themselves up for a major headache later on."
But other observers praised Microsoft's move to dip its toe into open-source waters it has long publicly disdained. "I welcome Microsoft into the OpenDocument environment," said Douglas Johnson, corporate standards program manager for Sun. "Sometimes zebras get new stripes."