Microsoft relents on open documents

Format friendly plug-in will help archiving, data sharing

Microsoft Corp.'s new-found support for opening and saving Office documents in an open format could have a big impact on how government and industry organizations archive data and exchange information among multiple systems.

Earlier this month, the company said it is helping to develop software tools that would let Microsoft Office users open and save documents in the Extensible Markup Language-based Open Document Format, a document format ratified by the International Organization of Standardization. ODF is managed by Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp. and others.

For some in the government, Microsoft's willingness to support the development of this plug-in is an important step away from the use of proprietary formats.
"Government records should be free of any proprietary software dependencies," said Owen Ambur, chairman of the Federal CIO Council's Extensible Markup Language Community of Practice. "We cannot defer to commercial vendors the prerogative for determining the formatting and structure of records that are inherently governmental in nature."

Until recently, Microsoft officials said they did not plan to support ODF in the next version of Microsoft Office, since the company will be using its own XML-based format, Open XML, for the next release of Microsoft Office, due for release later this year. So this planned set of ODF translation tools, the first of which was posted on a third-party software site earlier this month, comes as a surprise to many.

"We've had some governments request that we help build solutions so they can use ODF for certain situations, so that's why we are creating the Open XML Translator project," wrote Microsoft Office program manager Brian Jones in a blog entry announcing the project.

The plug-in also potentially could resolve an issue that has been brewing within the Massachusetts government. In a technical reference model drafted last year, the Massachusetts Information Technology Division mandated that state agencies save office documents in a vendor-neutral, standards-based format to preserve longevity and promote interoperability. The office specified using ODF.

Microsoft officials initially objected to the specification of ODF, which the company's own office productivity suite, Microsoft Office, did not support. Microsoft officials felt that the mandate unfairly favored procurement of other productivity suites that did support ODF, such as Sun Microsystems StarOffice.

Most government offices can save their documents in whatever is the default format for their programs. Microsoft Word, for instance, saves files in the .doc format (hence the suffix at the end of a document name, i.e. "Story.doc"). This format is known as a binary format, meaning that users require a particular program, or emulation of that program, to view and edit those documents.

"One of the problems with proprietary binary formats in the past has been that even the vendor that originally issued them doesn't support them by the second or third release," Ambur said. Such lack of support can make it difficult, or impossible, to view those documents in the decades to come, he said.

In contrast, a document saved in a standards-based format ensures that, even if the original program is no longer available, another program can be written to view the documents, using the specs.

Standardization also helps smooth the interchange of data between two different systems, said Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer for Sun Microsystems.

Governments should not require citizens to use a particular commercial product to view the data they are interested in seeing, and ODF can help increase the number of possible applications available, Phipps said.

Although Microsoft will not develop the plug-ins, the company is providing both funding and architectural guidance to a team of developers from other companies, according to Jason Matusow, director of standards affairs.

"This should strike a healthy balance between the transparency and flexibility of a community-based project while delivering the rigor of milestones and high-quality testing that large organizations demand of their software solutions," he wrote by e-mail.

Once the full set of plug-ins are done, as is expected by early next year, office workers will be able to save documents in the ODF format, should the agency archivist and administrator decree that ODF be the appropriate format.

"Anyone who cares about the longevity of their documents or [the ability to switch platforms] should exchange and store them as Open Document, whatever working format they choose locally in their application," Phipps wrote on his blog.

Joab Jackson is a senior writer with Government Computer News. He can be reached at jjackson@
postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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