Microsoft To Make XML Formats the Default in Next Office

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New XML-based file formats will be the defaults for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in the next version of Microsoft's market-dominant Office productivity suite, the company announced today.

Code-named Office 12, the next version of Office is expected to go into beta testing next fall and should ship sometime in the second half of 2006, according to Chris Capossela, corporate vice president for Microsoft's Information Worker Product Management Group.

The Microsoft Office Open XML formats will be based on Microsoft-defined XML schemas for each application. XML stands for Extensible Markup Language, a specification developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, originally to facilitate the creation of customized Web documents. In contrast to HTML, which is a set of predefined tags that dictate the look of a document, XML allows document creators to specify their own tags. This is done in a schema.

Microsoft says that its new XML formats will be royalty-free, so the documents should be easily accessible in other applications that support XML. In addition, the XML files will compress everything via Zip compression technology, which will make typical files 50 percent to 75 percent smaller than they would be in today's default Office formats (.doc for Word, .xls for Excel, and .ppt for PowerPoint).

Office 12 won't be the first version of Office to support XML; Office 2003 can save Word and Excel files in XML formats, and Office XP included an XML spreadsheet format. But adopting XML as the default is a major change that should improve interoperability with third-party apps that have struggled with today's famously nebulous and poorly documented Office binary file formats. Even though Microsoft will be using its own schemas, Capossela says that the company will make them widely accessible, which in theory should help competitors such as WordPerfect and OpenOffice handle the new formats.

On the other hand, the new formats will almost certainly cause problems for users of applications designed to work with the existing Office default formats--at least until these apps can be updated to support the XML formats.

Converters for Older Offices

To smooth the transition to the new formats, Microsoft plans to make free downloadable converters for Office 2003, Office XP, and Office 2000 available when Office 12 launches. With the converters installed, people who use these older versions of Office will be able to open the new XML-based files and save them back to their respective Office Open XML formats. Microsoft will also provide bulk converters for users who maintain large libraries of old Office documents that need to be accessible in .xml format.

Microsoft's Mac Business Unit says that it will move quickly to add support for the new XML formats to Microsoft Office for the Mac.

Office 12 will continue to include support for .doc, .xls, and .ppt files dating back to Office 97. Users will even have the option of making the old formats the defaults again.

Though Capossela discussed some aspects of the next version of Office last week in anticipation of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates's keynote speech at the company's CEO Summit, at that time he only hinted at the increased importance of XML in Office 12.

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