Microsoft makes Office document formats more accessible

Feb 01, 2008

Microsoft has announced it wants to simplify access to technical documentation for older Office formats, and initiate an open-source project to replicate the binary formats in Open XML.

Access to the binary formats of older Microsoft office applications like Word, Excel and Powerpoint is to become simpler. The company has issued a response to demands relating to the process of standardization of its own OOXML format. Following the initial rejection of OOXML, Microsoft now has a second opportunity to react to the numerous comments of those involved in the voting process, before the format is the subject of a new ballot at the end of February. Microsoft employee Brian Jones, who is responsible for the project and who writes a blog about the progress of his work with the ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association), reports, “there were a few comments from national bodies that asked about the documentation of the Office binary formats and the availability of those documents. (...) Based on the feedback from the national bodies, Microsoft decided to take some additional steps in this area.” Jones also announced that the documentation for the binary document formats would be made available under the conditions of the “Open Specification Promise” (OSP). The purpose of the OSP is to provide third parties with access to Microsoft’s technology, so that they can write their own software for it. The software giant has promised the intended users of this information that they do not need to fear any patent infringement claims.

According to the Microsoft man, the documentation has already been available for anyone to request for free by e-mail since 2006, in reference to one of the company’s support pages. Apparently hundreds of companies and public institutions have already taken advantage of this offer. “The new proposal we (Microsoft) made to ECMA TC45 was that we’d just get rid of the need to send an e-mail and we’d provide it for direct download under the OSP,” he writes. Nevertheless, free access has not always been company policy. According to the text on the support page, Microsoft would decide on a case-by-case basis before making the information available. And in practice, access was denied in particular to competitors, as the lawyers’ website Groklaw reveals.

It is not yet apparent from the Microsoft employee’s statements exactly which versions of the Office documents with the .doc, .xls and .ppt extensions will be made available. Jones goes on to write that Microsoft wants to finance an open-source project that would form a bridge between the binary formats and Open XML. “The thought here was that the most effective way to help people with this was to create an open source translation project to allow binary documents (.doc; .xls; .ppt) to be translated into Open XML,” writes Jones.

There are already plug-ins that allow import to the free ODF document format. Jones refers here to a Sun plug-in, for example. A new project is intended to make the same possible for the Microsoft OOXML format. Microsoft wants to start up a translation project on the open source portal Sourceforge, in collaboration with “independent software vendors” who remained unnamed. The translation project is to be released on February 15, 2008 under the BSD license, with Microsoft simultaneously releasing the information on its own website.

In the meantime, the ODF Alliance, the organization behind the already certified ODF, has been defending the reputation of the free document format. After a study was released by the research and advisory service provider Burton Group, stating a preference for the Microsoft format, the ODF Alliance issued a nine-page rebuttal, describing the study as unbalanced in its response.

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