Microsoft Corp has announced that it is sponsoring a new open source project that will develop a translator enabling its Office productivity suite to support the OpenDocument Format.
The company has created the Open XML Translator project at in response to requests for interoperability from government organizations, Microsoft said. Massachusetts famously decided to adopt ODF as a state government standard in September 2005, and it has been followed by similar decisions in Belgium, France, and Denmark.
The Massachusetts decision effectively froze Microsoft Office out of state government, given its commitment to the Office Open XML formats that will be used in the forthcoming Office 2007.
Despite previous calls to adopt ODF, Microsoft had claimed that there was not enough customer demand for it to do so. The company’s UK national technology officer, Jerry Fishenden, admitted that the Open XML Translator project was in response to demand, however.
The business drivers are fairly as to why it should be supported alongside the other formats we support, he said. Since ODF went through Oasis and ISO… a lot of governments tend to roll things that come from W3C and ISO into their standards requirements.
I think the landscape has changed, there have been some governments that, because it’s become an open standard, have said they will support it, Fishenden explained. Microsoft’s own Office Open XML formats are in the process or being accepted by Ecma before being put forward to ISO, and in the mean time, ODF has the edge in terms being an open standard.
While Microsoft’s default Office formats will remain Office Open XML, the company will make use of the Open XML Translator to ensure that Office users are able to read and write ODF documents via an add-in translation tool.
Once completed the tool will be available via free download that will create a new Office menu item for saving as ODF. Microsoft will also make use of this method in its support for Adobe Systems Inc’s PDF.
The prototype version of the tool is available on SourceForge offering read-only capabilities, but Fishenden maintained that the aim is to be able to offer full read/write capabilities for Word by the time Office 2007 ships, with Excel and PowerPoint following in 2007.
The functionality will also be available older versions of Office via a free Compatibility Pack, which will also offer updates to Office Open XML.
Fishenden also explained that the company chose to undertake the project in an open forum and with partners in order to avoid any suggestions that it was manipulating the formats to its own advantage. There’s a lot of suspicion out there about us, so [the thinking was] let do it in a completely visible way, he admitted.
Jon Rosenberg, director of Microsoft’s shared source program, recently told Computer Business Review that the company’s new CodePlex collaborative development portal would be the place for all Microsoft’s open and shared source projects.
Fishenden said Open XML Translator was the exception as Microsoft wanted to be doubly sure it had the trust of the open source community. It’s putting it in a place where a large part of the community expect it to be, he said.
ODF emerged from the open source community as the default format for OpenOffice.org, but it is also used in a number of closed source application suites, such as Sun Microsystems Inc’s StarOffice, and IBM Corp’s Workplace.
In creating the Open XML Translator project Microsoft is also working with three third-party vendors, with French software firm Clever Age, which has previously worked on an OpenOffice document converter for Microsoft Office 2003.
Other participants include Indian testing firm Aztecsoft and Germany’s Dialogika also involved, the latter specifically in relation to European Commission interoperability requirements, according to Fishenden.
As well as going some way to satisfying the European Commission, Microsoft will also be hoping that the Open XML Translator functionality offers enough to satisfy those government entities mandating the use of open formats.
If so, it will also signal an end to a significant level of controversy. The Massachusetts decision prompted a Senate Committee hearing, proposed changes to the Massachusetts Information Technology Division’s decision-making powers, and the eventual resignation of CIO, Peter Quinn.
All that could have been avoided had Microsoft made the decision to support ODF sooner. The company had previously cited concerns over backwards compatibility in its opposition, and Fishenden maintained that issue meant the company would continue to recommend Office Open XML for existing Office users.