Cautious optimism for MS decision

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Local industry has greeted Microsoft's decision, to support Open Document Format (ODF) in its Office 2007 suite of products, with cautious optimism.

Since the controversial ratification of Microsoft's open document format Open XML (OOXML), by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), last month, several local industry players have challenged Microsoft to include support for ODF in its products.

In a change of heart, Microsoft yesterday acceded to the request in its public announcement to support not only ODF, but also Adobe's PDF format and XPS - an XML Paper Specification.

The surprise decision comes as Microsoft faces continued regulatory scrutiny from the European Commission over interoperability concerns.

Microsoft SA platform strategy manager Paulo Ferreira says the decision to support the formats stems from customer feedback, particularly in government forums. The updates will be made in early 2009 with its Office 2007 service pack 2.

"The decision has a twofold consequence for us: our customers will now have greater choice and more flexibility among document formats, and it shows our commitment to our interoperability strategy," he says.

Ferreira notes that Microsoft hopes the development community as a whole sees the move as a positive step. Indeed, several open source and industry monitors say the decision should be viewed as a hopeful sign that Microsoft is committed to interoperability.

Not a full commitment

Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation Andrew Rens says: "It is good news for people who use Microsoft products since they will now be able to generate documents which the users of other operating systems can read. They will now be able to communicate with the rest of us."

He says, while the move is definitely good news, Microsoft would show definite commitment to interoperability if it decided to abandon OOXML entirely and focus on developing improvements for ODF.

Microsoft's Ferreira says the company is maintaining OOXML to ensure its products retain backward compatibility.

Open source communities across the world, particularly those in emerging markets, voiced their disapproval when the ISO ratified OOXL. At the time, many people, including Rens, questioned the integrity of the standards body, saying: "China, India, Brazil and SA represent the bulk of the world's population. It speaks volumes when the majority reject a standard and yet it is still recognised."

Rens is concerned that the move to include support for ODF next year will make people complacent. "This might be mistaken as a resolution of the problem created by two mutually incompatible document standards; it isn't."

However, he encourages Microsoft to continue in a similar path. "It is a good first step, but there is a long way to go."

Taking steps

Bob Jolliffe, head of information security at the Department of Science and Technology, says it's great to see Microsoft take up the challenge to include ODF in its suite of products.

However, he is sceptical as to how the format will be supported given the current conversion technologies used to open ODF files within Microsoft Office. "There are two ways to access ODF in Office at the moment: a plug-in from Sun Microsystems, which is considered the best. Another is one being developed on SourceForge, which is of a very poor quality and not very intuitive."

In its announcement, Microsoft committed itself to the development of all the included file formats and Jolliffe says this may well be true. "Microsoft may be joining the ODF technical committee responsible for the development of ODF (OASIS). We are currently working on version 1.2."

ODF has been ratified as a South African national standard.

Ferreira says the decision will hopefully further open the door for discussion between developers and Microsoft. "It's all about listening and collaborating to create products that will be useful to customers. Hopefully this will foster more dialogue."

Related stories:
ODF is SA's national standard
Emerging markets reject OOXML

Candice Jones
ITWeb online telecoms editor

Candice Jones is an online telecoms editor with a focus on telecoms. She loves line speeds that go up and call rates that go down.

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