Microsoft Shifts ODF Stance

Backs effort for free plug-ins to save Office files in the open-source format

In a tacit acknowledgment of the OpenDocument format's increased momentum, Microsoft Corp. said last week that it will back an open-source project to create software that will allow Microsoft Office users to open and save files in ODF.

The project, hosted on SourceForge.net, is being led by three independent software vendors that are receiving funding from Microsoft and is open to all developers, said Tom Robertson, general manager for standards and interoperability at Microsoft.

The goal is to develop free plug-ins that allow users to natively save Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in ODF, as well as convert files in Office 2007's OpenXML format to ODF and back. "XML is good, standardized XML is good, and choice is good. This is an interesting announcement," said Louis Gutierrez, CIO for the Massachusetts state government. Last September, Massachusetts announced plans to begin migrating state employees to ODF by Jan. 1, 2007. The Word plug-in is expected by December, with similar plug-ins for Excel and PowerPoint anticipated 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 Standards Organization (ISO) in May.

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 Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice and OpenOffice.org's offering.

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, Belgium's minister of employment and computerization.

Three companies are working on the Microsoft-sponsored plug-ins: Paris-based Clever Age, which has written most of the code thus far; Bangalore, India-based Aztec Software Inc., which will test it; and Saarland, Germany-based Dialogika GmbH, which will test and help implement the finished plug-ins. The plug-ins are expected to have "batch" capabilities so that users can convert multiple files at a time.

Until now, Microsoft has publicly declined to support any moves toward making OpenXML compatible with ODF, saying that doing so would stifle its own innovation. But Robertson acknowledged that the company had been discussing that option with government customers for months.

Besides providing an unspecified amount of funding, Microsoft will offer 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 with older versions, he said.

Paul DeGroot, an analyst at 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," he said.

But other observers praised Microsoft's move to dip its toes into the open-source waters it has long publicly disdained. "I welcome Microsoft into the OpenDocument environment," said Douglas Johnson, corporate standards program manager at Sun. "Sometimes zebras get new stripes."

ODF Plug-Ins
List of converters between microsoft Office and OpenDocument
DEVELOPER(S) TYPE OF CONVERTER OR PLUG-IN
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  Clear Age, Aztec Software and Dialogika(all funded by Microsoft)
Word plug-in by end of 2006; plug-ins for Excel and PowerPoint in 2007
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  Sun Microsystems
Office plug-in and Web service that can convert multiple files at a time
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  The OpenDocument Foundation Inc.
Word and Excel plug-ins in beta; PowerPoint plug-in in development
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  Media Entities Inc.
Word-to-ODF converter is available
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  Tonic Systems Inc.
A PowerPoint converter that could add ODF feature

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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