Microsoft's ODF support points to Open XML challenges

Microsoft Corp.'s plan to add ODF support to its Office applications suite next year reflects continued challenges for the software vendor's own Office Open XML file format, as the industry moves ahead with adopting ODF and sorts out Open XML's troubles.

Though Open XML was ratified as an open standard by the ISO international standards body on April 1, it continues to face impediments to widespread adoption. On Friday, it was revealed that South Africa is appealing ISO's approval of the standard. And earlier this week, New York's state government officially promoted ODF — formally, the Open Document Format for Office Applications — as a standard file format based on customer demand, as it launched a new initiative for technology openness and open standards.

"If all that proprietary vendors are waiting for before they directly support ODF is a 'broad-based customer request,' then they should be aware that such a demand already exists in New York state," according to a report that was written by the state's IT office and posted online.

Even Microsoft is holding off on fully supporting the version of the Open XML specification approved by ISO, yet it will support ODF in Office 2007 Service Pack 2 when that update is released released early next year, a plan that the company announced Wednesday. By comparison, Office won't natively support the current Open XML spec until the next major version code-named Office 14, a release date for which has not been announced.

Jay Lyman, an analyst at The 451 Group, said the fact that Microsoft has come out in favor of supporting ODF first shows that it "is being steered toward greater support for open source, open standards and interoperability" by customers, "which in this case are primarily governments in the U.S. and around the world."

Although Open XML will certainly be adopted and used in the future, ODF has a head start because it was approved by ISO first — two years ago, in fact — and is not plagued by lingering questions or doubts about its merit as an international standard.

"Governments that must move now on their format plans are seeing benefits in ODF, which is approved, backed by a number of large vendors and being adopted around the globe," Lyman said.

South Africa's decision to appeal ISO's ratification of Open XML casts doubt on that format as a viable alternative to ODF, said Andrew Updegrove, an open-source advocate and an attorney at Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston. "No one can now say, until this is resolved, that OOXML 'is a global standard,'" he said.

Updegrove, who writes a blog on technology standards, also noted that because Microsoft is delaying Office support for Open XML, there is reason to take the appeal very seriously because there is no sense of urgency around resolving it and deploying the format in the near term.

Microsoft declined to comment on South Africa's appeal, saying only that ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission have a clear process for evaluating and resolving appeals and that the issue remains between them and the South African standards body. The company also promoted its moves toward interoperability in a statement through its public relations firm.

As for New York's decision to promote ODF, Jason Matusow, senior director of interoperability at Microsoft, noted in an e-mail that in the New York study the state calls for technology to be considered on a "value-for-money" basis and that openness is just one consideration among many.

He also said that New York officials recommend that the state legislature "not mandate in statute the use of any specific document creation and preservation technology," implying that it's likely the state will not officially favor ODF over any other file format.

Peter Sayer in the IDG News Service's Paris bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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