FAQ: Office 14 and Microsoft's support for ODF

Answering a few lingering questions

Changes were made to Office Open XML between Ecma International's approval of the file format as a standard a year and a half ago and the ISO standards body's ratification of it this spring. Microsoft Corp. won't support the ISO version of its own format until Office 14 arrives around the end of 2009. Is this a big deal, as Microsoft critics such as attorney and blogger Andy Updegrove claim?

Burton Group analyst Guy Creese, who as some of you might recall co-authored a controversial white paper earlier this year predicting that OOXML would win the file format battle with ODF, agrees with Microsoft's critics.

"I think Microsoft is taking too long," he said. "I can't imagine that they wouldn't support it sooner if they could, so there must be some significant work required."

On the other hand, Creese says that the differences between the various versions of OOXML are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small. They're much smaller than the differences between OOXML and an older binary format, such as Office 2003 or Office 2000. And most users don't worry much about losing data when resaving between those formats (though document archivists and power users working with complex forms or macros might have problems).

Creese also points out that since OOXML is, obviously, based on human-readable XML rather than on binary characters, the "chances of information ever becoming unrecoverable are a lot less."

These developments naturally trigger other questions:

Well, can Microsoft at least provide support sooner for the version of OOXML that Ecma submitted to ISO back in January? That earlier version is most notable for better graphics rendering and backward compatibility. But according to a spokeswoman, Microsoft has no plans to support it sooner.

Why did Microsoft belatedly support ODF and PDF? Not to woo consumers, for whom ODF and PDF support are nice-to-have but not essential features, but to ensure that Microsoft Office remains acceptable to governments, which exercise their power as huge buyers of technology as well as policymakers.

For instance, Belgium, the Netherlands and South Africa have all said they favor using ODF today, especially because Microsoft Office doesn't yet support the ISO-approved version of OOXML.

In the U.S., both Minnesota and the state of New York recently came out in favor of open document formats, though neither spoke explicitly of supporting ODF or OOXML.

With its move, "if a government says ODF is our standard, then Microsoft can say, 'It's our standard, too,' " Creese said.

But why isn't Microsoft committing to ODF 1.2? It's supposed to have better accessibility and spreadsheet features than ODF 1.1. It is already in the OpenOffice 3.0 beta, is expected to be finalized by OASIS this fall and is on target to be ratified by ISO next summer.

Microsoft says it hasn't determined if and when it will support ODF 1.2, and, through a spokeswoman, declined to elaborate why. Marino Marcich, executive director of the ODF Alliance, thinks that's silly. "There's no reason why you couldn't implement ODF 1.2 right now," he said.

I'm a WordPerfect user. Will Microsoft let users set other formats beside ODF and PDF for default save? Yes, Office 2007 SP2 will let users set any format that they can "Save As" today as their default, too. That includes WordPerfect, Microsoft Works, older Word formats, Rich Text Format, plain text and so on.

Hmm... Microsoft seems to be making the playing field awfully level. But there must be some remaining friction if I try to avoid OOXML. There will be some. Users saving documents in non-Office formats such as ODF or PDF will see a pop-up message warning that they may lose certain features or formatting if they go ahead, said a spokeswoman. That's similar to the messages that users see today when they save into older Office or non-Office formats.

Also, when opening non-OOXML documents, Office 2007's interface won't automatically remove features that aren't supported in those formats. "For example, when a user opens an .ODS (OpenOffice.org) spreadsheet file, they are free to use Excel's conditional formatting to analyze the data and identify trends, even though conditional formatting is not supported by the ODF format," wrote the spokeswoman.

While Creese thinks Microsoft "truly wants to" support ODF as best as it can, it will also subtly remind users that "if you want full fidelity and best interoperability, you'll want OOXML."

Does Office 2007's support for ODF help or hurt OpenOffice.org? It's obviously early to say, and the answer is likely to have ramifications. For the tens of millions of OpenOffice.org users, this tears down the slight but still annoying compatibility wall separating them and the much larger population of Microsoft Office users.

That is likely to attract some more people to try OpenOffice.org or free siblings such as StarOffice from Sun Microsystems or Lotus Symphony from IBM.

"If you're not working in an enterprise that has standardized on Microsoft Office, you should think twice before paying full freight for Office, and give serious consideration to this free alternative," wrote Computerworld's Preston Gralla in a review of the upcoming OpenOffice 3.0.

But Microsoft is counting on its new ODF support as well as the gravitational pull from all of the existing Office documents to prevent large enterprises and governmental organizations from leaving the Microsoft Office orbit. And to keep consumers and small businesses, Microsoft is continuing to offer heavy, tactically timed discounts.

Judging by Office 2007's strong sales in the past year since its release, the foundation shows no signs of cracking.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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