All you need to know about Office Open XML

Microsoft managed to win its battle to get the popular productivity software recognized as an individual standard, but the Open Document Format remains a viable alternative

Now that Microsoft has successfully lobbied to get its Office Open XML document format approved as an international standard by the ISO, it should put just as much effort into showing IT managers that it will offer value beyond attracting the interest of government customers.

After all, Microsoft only began its attempts to fast-track Office Open XML (OOXML) through the ISO process after the sudden, meteoric rise of Open Document Format (ODF), backed by Sun Microsystems and IBM. ODF is now used by more than 70 countries around the world, even though Word is the most likely productivity software within corporate enterprises. Without achieving the same level of credibility that comes with ISO approval, Microsoft could never be sure its Office suite would meet the criteria of public sector requests for proposals.

For those IT managers who already use Office, though, OOXML might not seem to make much difference in their lives. Microsoft says there are many firms that are already implementing the standard, but its critics say the standard documentation is extremely long and complex, and will need "scrubbing" by the ISO before it's of any use. In an interview, Microsoft Canada CTO John Weigelt insisted OOXML would have broad appeal among technology professionals.

"It's allowing the move to XML-based document formats, and a move away from binary formats. It's giving them greater visibility in the documents they store," he said.

That may not be enough of an incentive for IT managers who are frustrated that files written in previous versions of Office and saved to the .docx file format can't be read by people using older versions of Office unless they have installed an OOXML converter. Until we can do away with converters, or until Microsoft offers native support for its standard in Office 2007, OOXML might be ignored by most IT shops.

ODF may still become a viable alternative to Office, but IBM's Doug Heintzman pointed out that comparisons between the two aren't always fair. "The core design point of (Microsoft's OOXML) specification is to have reverse compatibility. ODF is a different kind of specification," he said. "It was designed to enable future use cases of embedding documents into workflows with rich semantic tagging."

If nothing else, OOXML might become a better test case for Microsoft's ability to promote greater transparency and interoperability around its technology. It's committed to new principles and has released thousands of pages on key products, but a standard requires the kind of stewardship of a leader that places the benefits of the community above all else. If Microsoft can do that, the benefits will be worth more than anything the ISO could ever confer.

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