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Microsoft open Office for business

an image of the Microsoft logoWhen I first read about Microsoft going down the XML route for their new Office file format, I had to wonder why. After all, this is the same company that likes to ’embrace & extend’.

And after reading between the lines, there’s still the beating heart of a strategy to dominate, but one that is wrapped in a need to share.

Yes, a need to share.

Right now, the name: ‘Microsoft’ and the phrase: ‘de facto’ are not often uttered in the same sentence. Go back a decade and that wouldn’t have been the case because Microsoft were considered the de facto standard.

Oh my, how times have changed, and slowly but surely, Microsoft is changing with the times:

“The creation of a fully documented standard derived from the formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML, will likely take about a year, Microsoft executives said. Once Microsoft Office Open XML is recognized as an ECMA standard, the group of companies then intends to pursue standardization at ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, which is particularly influential among government customers.”

There are three reasons for Microsoft going down the standards route: 1. simplicity and maintainability, 2. seizing some all-important plot of land on the moral high ground, and 3. playing nice with all of the other girls & boys!

To forge forward with your own proprietary format is somewhat of an expletive these days, and Microsoft is as acutely aware of this as anyone else.

To move Office forward and to keep Office relevant in the coming years, using an open standard like XML is vitally important.

While there’s going to be the inevitable loss here & there to the likes of Star Office, Open Office et al, by maintaining an open standard for the Office format, Microsoft don’t have to worry too much about not being able to play nice with everyone else, because their file format is open, the other boys & girls can and will work to be compatible with Office.

Why? Because it’s just so damned easy, that’s why.

And it appears that Microsoft is going to put that intent in legal form, too:

“As part of its standardization effort, Microsoft will change the license to entice software developers to work with the file formats. ‘We’re taking an approach that’s basically a promise from Microsoft not to sue developers,’ said Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft’s information worker strategy.”

Clearly though, some issues still remain. And like any political drama, there are the nay-sayers and hecklers in the form of old enemies Sun Microsystems and IBM:

“A representative of Sun Microsystems, which competes with Microsoft in the desktop software market, said that it’s unclear whether the licensing that Microsoft adopts will allow open-source developers to use the Office Open XML formats. The representative also questioned whether the ECMA committee will, like other standards bodies, take significant contributions from several companies, not just Microsoft.

Similarly, an IBM representative said that the company is awaiting more details on Microsoft’s plans, specifically in regard to any intellectual property encumbrances, open-source licensing, and proprietary extensions.”

Personally, I think Microsoft will do the right thing, and these issues owe more to Microsoft’s lack of open source savvy than anything else.

There’s also a fourth reason for Microsoft to open up the Office format; if the Office Open XML format becomes a recognized standard, it might be easier for third parties to support than to write their own format from scratch.

Who knows, could we start hearing the name: ‘Microsoft’ and the phrase: ‘de facto’ in the same sentence again?

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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