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Microsoft Recommits to XML-based File Formats in Office 12

Microsoft will make XML-based file formats the default for its forthcoming "Office 12" version of Office, which is scheduled for release late in 2006. While Microsoft supported XML file formats in Office 2003, the formats weren't the defaults and XML functionality was only available in certain high-end versions of the Office suite.

Microsoft calls the new file formats the Microsoft Office Open XML Formats. They will be the defaults for "Office 12" versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Microsoft plans to begin discussing details of the new XML-based file formats at Microsoft TechEd 2005 next week in Orlando, Fla.

"Customers have asked us for improved file and data management; improved interoperability; and open, royalty-free, published file format specifications -- without sacrificing backward compatibility," Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of Office at Microsoft, said in a statement released Wednesday night. "We're confident that by adopting XML-based default file formats, we are delivering the tools that will help IT professionals address these challenges, while enabling developers to integrate Office even further into their customized solutions."

Key benefits of the new file formats, according to Microsoft, include smoother data interoperability, better security, improved error recovery and dramatically reduced file services.

Microsoft faces a huge business issue with making file formats standards-based. The company's dominant position in desktop productivity software is partly protected by the legacy of proprietary formats. Users who want to read documents created by nearly everybody else in the business world must plunk down several hundreds dollars for their own copy of Word and Excel, furthering the market dominance of Office.

Opening those formats to XML -- while generally encouraged by the technical community -- will make it conceivably much easier for competitors to open Office-generated files and create files of their own that can be opened by Office users.

Analyst Joe Wilcox with Jupiter Research believes Microsoft is doing nothing of the sort. In a posting on his blog, Wilcox writes, "I would caution competitors and partners to avoid getting sucked into the hype about Microsoft abandoning its proprietary file formats; the company isn't."

Wilcox acknowledges that Microsoft plans to publish its proprietary schemas for its new Office 12 XML-based file formats and license them royalty-free. But Microsoft's ownership of the schema will make the arrangement no more "open" than Adobe's PDF, which is licensed similarly, Wilcox argues.

Microsoft also plans to make a free update available as a download to enable Office 2000, Office XP and Office 2003 to work with the new formats.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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