BRUSSELS--Microsoft says it will offer its Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document formats as open standards, a move that could spark a war with technology rivals over standard document formats.
Microsoft says it will submit its Office Open XML (Extensible Markup Language) document format technology to the International Standards Organization (ISO) to be adopted as an international standard in time for the launch of the next version of its Office software suite, code-named Office 12.
The development comes as a group of technology rivals led by IBM and Sun Microsystems are mobilizing a global effort to push the OASIS consortium's Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) as a global standard format for these kinds of documents.
The effort was spurred in part by a highly publicized Massachusetts proposal requiring compliance with OpenDocument for government documents, which would mean the phasing out of Microsoft Office and its proprietary format.
Microsoft has been facing increasing pressure from governments and agencies that have insisted on standards compliance for their software. Microsoft executives confirmed that the move would help the company win contracts from public authorities that want software based on open standards.
"We have a few barriers [with government contracts]," says Alan Yates, general manager for Microsoft Office. "It will give governments more long-term confidence."
However, a key supporter of OpenDocument and steward of OpenOffice, an open-source rival to Office, says Microsoft is using the move as an "end run" around having to support OpenDocument, which is backed by a host of vendors, including IBM, Apple, Google, Intel, Novell, Red Hat, and Sun. Companies can look at ISO standards, but they can't use them to build their own applications, says Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager of OpenOffice.org and chair of the group's governing council.
"With an open standard, any application can use it," he says. "With an ISO standard, it's not quite the same thing. It just means you have a reference for it."
Microsoft's Yates admits that the move will help Microsoft compete against OpenOffice, though he says he believes that the company is already doing so effectively.
The decision also reflects pressure from the European Commission and member governments of the European Union. Yates says that Microsoft has been asked to standardize its formats. The issue has come up at series of meetings between company executives and E.U. government officials.
Tools for Legacy Documents
Microsoft also is planning to provide tools that will let old documents take advantage of the open standard. "It's the end of closed documents," Yates says.
For industry, it will offer new levels of opportunity for innovation, he says. "Developers of all kinds will rush to take advantage [of the format]," Yates predicts.
Microsoft has assembled a group of major industry users and computer firms to support its move, including Apple, U.K. oil company BP, Intel, and Norwegian oil company Statoil.
The group will make a joint submission to the Geneva-based European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) for the XML document formats for the three Office products to become an open standard. The ECMA's evaluation process is expected to take around a year. Once completed, ECMA will forward a request to the ISO, which is also based in Geneva.
Microsoft's Yates explains that the timing was chosen to ensure that the XML formats become open standards in time for the launch of Office 12 toward the end of next year.