Microsoft 'Frees' Office Formats

Microsoft places code and specs for its old Office binary file formats under its "no lawsuit" program; begins open source project.
Microsoft this week officially gave developers the right to freely use code and specifications for translating between its older proprietary Office file formats and Office 2007's newer XML formats without fear of being sued.

At the same time, company officials must be sitting on pins and needles as a key meeting over whether or not its newer formats will become an international standard looms.

Microsoft officials announced today that they have placed the older Office binary file format specifications for Word, Excel and PowerPoint (.doc, .xls, .ppt) under the company's Open Specification Promise (OSP). The OSP is a legal program whereby Microsoft promises not to sue developers who use specifications that it puts under the program's aegis.

Documentation for the formats has been available by request on a royalty free basis for a while, but putting it under the OSP gives developers cover from lawsuits.

"By making these specifications easier to access, others will be able to build products or tools that will be able to convert documents from the binary file formats to Open XML," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement e-mailed to

Additionally, the company announced that an open source project to produce free translator code to convert from the older formats to the newer ones is now live on the SourceForge code repository site. That project, which is being sponsored by Microsoft, had also been scheduled to start this week. The code produced under the project will be available under the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) open source license, according to company statements.

Both moves are part of an effort by Microsoft to preserve its dominance in the Office productivity market even as it evolves its products to reflect its emerging software-plus-services strategy.

Billions and Billions

With a reputed 500 million copies of Office in use worldwide, a key underlying issue for corporations and governments has become the literally billions of documents that are stored in the original Office binary file formats. For archive purposes, many users have a continuing need to have access to those files, and thus a need to be able to translate them into the newest formats, or into an industry standard interchangeability format.

Particularly in the case of governments, documents may be required to be archived for hundreds of years. Indeed, many local, state, national and international governments are actively in the process of establishing policies that every document must be easily retrievable using standardized formats.

In fact, as supporters like to point out, there is already an international standard for document interchange.

Advocates of that standard, the OpenDocument Format or ODF, are pushing governments virtually everywhere to adopt it as the only standard for document storage and retrieval – and to reject similar standardization of Microsoft's competing formats.

Among ODF supporters' arguments: massive numbers of existing documents are stored in Microsoft's older proprietary formats and could become inaccessible if, for instance, Microsoft went out of business sometime in the future, or simply decided to eliminate support for the formats.

Indeed, that is a very real fear that ODF supporters say could easily become a reality. When Microsoft released Office 2003 Service Pack 3 last summer, it blocked access to those older binary formats for what officials said were security reasons. Following an outcry in January, the company backed off and restored access to those blocked formats.

Translators already exist to convert Microsoft's current Office formats – known as Office Open XML (OOXML) – into ODF and vice versa. In addition, at least one converter is available from Sun Microsystems that can convert Office 2003 and earlier binary formats into ODF.

These latest moves are primarily attempts for Microsoft to get a leg up in the standards arena, according to one analyst.

"Getting translators out kind of undercuts the point that the older files aren't accessible," Rob Helm, research director at analysis firm Directions on Microsoft, told "Making sure there are translators available will help Microsoft's standardization efforts," he added.

The existence of translators for the older binary format files may also help Microsoft in its efforts to convince government customers not to mandate a move to ODF which, of course, is what the company hopes to head off.

"In the case of governments … it may make the [legacy] binary file format documents more acceptable," Helm said.

The Standards Struggle Continues

Microsoft has been struggling to get OOXML adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). However, a move to give it ISO "fast track" approval fell short in balloting by ISO member countries in September.

Since then, European standards organization Ecma International has been shepherding OOXML through what is called the "ballot resolution" process. That is, OOXML could still soon become an ISO standard – if a raft of technical objections made by the voting countries can be resolved.

Ecma, which has already adopted OOXML as a standard on its own, and Microsoft, have been working at a gallop since last summer's balloting to address all of the objections. A weeklong meeting to decide whether all the objections – more than 3,000 of them – have been resolved is scheduled to begin in Geneva, Switzerland on February 25.

Once the objections are resolved – if they can be resolved – there will not be another round of voting. Instead, each nation that voted in September will have 30 days to notify ISO officials that it has changed its vote. If enough countries change their votes against adopting OOXML, then it will become a standard.

If not, Microsoft and Ecma can still resubmit OOXML through a longer more formal process at another time – but it's unclear how long such a process could take.

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