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"Open document formats for Office will make it easier to manage data in the long term.".

If there is one certainty in business, it is that all companies will behave with calculated self-interest. No company ever deliberately makes a move that will harm its overall profitability.

With this in mind, some observers have been more than a little puzzled by Microsoft's decision to hand over effective control of its Office document formats to the European Standards body, ECMA, which will eventually turn over final control to ISO, the International Standards Organisation.

By turning the Office document file format, Office Open XML, into an open standard, Microsoft is either conceding defeat in its battle with the OpenDocument Format (ODF) supported by many of its rivals, or it has found a subtler way to compete by creating its own standard.

Microsoft perhaps knew it would have to open up standards fully. Its own proprietary formats have not so far proved sufficiently functional or scalable and it refused to support ODF in the past because it claims the standard is not fully compatible with older Office documents.

Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International, said the European Union (EU) and European Commission (EC) had "asked us to do more work on our formats, and we've done that." But until the standard is approved by ECMA it cannot be considered open, and this is not set to happen for 18 months.

For at least three years, Microsoft has been promising resellers and close technology partners that they would be able to tightly integrate office documents with other programs - not just to exchange documents, but to embed Office into the front ends of their applications. Microsoft is certainly big enough to create its own standard, but what it means exactly by "open" has yet to be discovered.

Microsoft is feeling the competitive heat from OpenDocument Format (ODF), says Neil Macehiter, an analyst and partner at IT advisory firm MWD.

"I do think Microsoft was pushed. Whether it was an explicit push from clients, particularly in the public sector, or from the broader European Union, the impact of its rivals rallying around the OpenDocument Format has undoubtedly had an effect on Microsoft.

"The company appears to have put the Office Open XML formats on a level footing with ODF, but the situation for organisations needing to exploit files based on those formats is no clearer. We certainly haven't heard the last of this debate."

Sun Microsystems' UK marketing manager Jon Tutcher is wary of any intellectual property or licensing constraints associated with Microsoft's move.

"Whilst [Sun] sees Microsoft's decision as a good first step, it urges them to provide further clarification on the many questions resulting from this announcement, specifically whether there will still be proprietary extensions within the Microsoft XML implementation that are only known to Microsoft.

"Sun would also like to understand the meaning of the 18 month time frame set forth by Microsoft before developers will be able to get the full specification from ECMA and the corresponding lack of release to the public before this time frame."
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Publication:Information Age (London, UK)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 10, 2005
Words:498
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