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Microsoft's Schema Submission Softens Massachusetts' OpenDoc Stance

Microsoft's announcement that it will submit its Office Open XML schemas to a European standards body has apparently softened the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' stance regarding document storage formats.

And that could save the Redmond giant a bundle in potential lost sales of Office, as well as staving off the public relations nightmare that having a major governmental buyer reject its products as non-standard would create.

Massachusetts announced its final proposal in late August stating that, after January 2007, it will only allow workers in the state's executive branch to use applications that save documents in OpenDocument format, but not Microsoft's XML schemas due to legal questions regarding the format's openness.

In response, Microsoft announced last week it will submit its XML storage format schemas to Ecma International, a standards board based in Geneva, Switzerland. (See “Microsoft Will Submit Office Schemas To Standards Body,” Nov. 22, 2005. ) That is the same organization to which Microsoft previously submitted ECMAScript, C# and the Common Language Infrastructure.

While the announcement rallied Microsoft's competitors and critics to denounce it, the move also appears to have had the desired affect on the executive branch of state government in the Bay State.

“The Commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft's progress in creating an open document format,” said Thomas Trimarco, secretary of the Commonwealth's Executive Office for Administration and Finance, in a statement.

The controversy revolves around how to properly store and access governmental records that will need to be part of the public record for centuries, according to statements made by Peter Quinn, CIO of the Commonwealth, in late October.

There is already a standard in place for XML document storage. The OpenDocument Format (ODF) or OpenDoc is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Version 1.0 was signed off last spring and in late September was submitted to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Perhaps ironically, if Microsoft can get its Office schemas accepted as an Ecma standard, the company plans to submit them as a standard with ISO, as well.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the ODF standard is based on schemas that came originally from StarOffice, an open source office suite competitor that Sun Microsystems purchased and eventually spun off as its own open source organization known as OpenOffice.org. The OpenDoc specifications are royalty-free and have no legal strings when it comes to the use of the intellectual property they encompass. Sun shipped the latest version, StarOffice 8, in late September.

While Microsoft has already made its Office XML schemas available for use on a royalty-free basis, it has not relinquished ownership of the intellectual property rights in them. Nor does Ecma require that. Additionally, Microsoft has posted a statement on its Web site, that it “will not seek to enforce any of its patent claims necessary to conform to the technical specifications [in regard to the Office XML schemas].”  

There has been a lot of angst in some quarters that, because Microsoft is not placing the schemas fully in the public domain, it could revoke its covenant at some later date – catching everyone in a legal bind as to how to access documents years later if they   are stored in a format that is no longer non-proprietary. Others quibble that Microsoft's statement could be slight of hand, since it specifically only foreswears legal action regarding the XML schemas for Office 2003.

Those arguments aside, given Microsoft's nod towards a standards body, and in the face of stiff criticism from within Massachusetts' state government regarding the intent to dump Office, the tone has noticeably mellowed.

“If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats," Trimarco's statement continues.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft officials were pleased with the seeming turnaround.

“We're very pleased with the finance secretary's positive comments regarding our efforts around Office Open XML,” reads a statement provided by Microsoft quoting Alan Yates, general manager Microsoft information worker strategy. “We look forward to providing additional details to the Commonwealth and continuing positive dialog around open standards and Microsoft Office.”

The longer-term question, however, seems to be whether the OpenDoc schema formats catch on beyond use in Adobe's Acrobat, and what effect such a development might have on the popularity of Microsoft's products. This is especially true when the Redmond company is gambling so heavily on the long-awaited arrival of Windows Vista and Office 12 about a year from now.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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