Microsoft Aims at Office Interoperability

That was fast! We're only one day into the post-Bill Gates era, and already Microsoft is taking steps to improve interoperability between its Office suite of productivity applications and competing products, including open source alternatives such as OpenOffice.org.

The new initiatives pertain not only to Office 2007's new Open XML file formats, but to the earlier, binary-only Office document formats, as well. Mostly they involve documentation -- thousands of pages of technical documentation, designed to allow third-party developers to more easily read and write Microsoft's file formats -- but they also include actual translation software, as well. Can Microsoft really be turning over a new leaf?

First, Microsoft has issued technical documentation describing proprietary Microsoft protocols used in Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and SharePoint Server 2007. This is big news, because third-party software developers have long had difficulty interoperating with these products. Linux users, in particular, have never had a way to connect with SharePoint Server.

Next up, the company has posted some 5,000 pages of previously-unreleased technical documentation that describes the binary-only file formats for versions of Microsoft Office before Office 2007. Open source office suites have had good success deciphering these formats before now, but the translation is never perfect. This documentation should help to iron out any remaining bugs.

Finally, Microsoft has launched software projects to develop translators between Office Open XML and other file formats, including ODF (Open Document Format) and UOF (Uniform Office Format), an open standard that is popular in Asia.

Some of the information Microsoft has made available is covered by Microsoft patents, so it's not technically "free," even if the documentation is used to create open source software. But Microsoft has pledged not to assert patent claims against open source developers, as long as they do not develop and distribute their software as part of a commercial enterprise.

Of course, one could argue that Microsoft is making none of these gestures out of pure altruism. It still has anti-trust judgments to worry about, both at home and in the European Union. Faced with the threat of still more fines, you could almost say that the marriage of Microsoft and open standards is a shotgun wedding.

There's another catch, too. Even Microsoft employees have admitted now that "ODF has clearly won" the office-document file format war. Wouldn't it be funny if Microsoft went through all this effort just to drum up support for file formats and protocols that, in the end, no one will really want?

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