Microsoft touts Office format interoperability on the road

Following up on its recent interoperability and standards-boosting pledges, Microsoft hosted independent software vendor (ISV) partners to demonstrate Office format interoperability at a road show on Thursday.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Following up on its recent interoperability and standards-boosting pledges, Microsoft hosted independent software vendor (ISV) partners to demonstrate Office format interoperability at a road show on Thursday.

The event highlights the launch of the company's Document Interoperability Initiative, which aims to foster easier, higher-fidelity document exchange between platforms without data loss, said Tom Robertson, general manager of corporate interoperability and standards for Microsoft. The Office format interop road show will continue next week in Seoul, South Korea, then Europe, then Silicon Valley and other locales, he added.

Microsoft and partners Novell, Mark Logic, DataViz, Quickoffice and Nuance all showed document interoperability with their various applications.

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Most of the benefits Microsoft has talked about thus far would ostensibly accrue to ISVs and customers who want to build and run diverse applications. They want to be able to open a word processing document on their machine without worrying about what application created it.

But there are clear advantages for systems integrators and value-added resellers (VARs) as well, according to Robertson.

These value-added partners can use all the API and specification data Microsoft posted to the Web to ease customer issues and concerns, Robertson said. "They will have all the information to make sure the pieces fit, and that will lead to a greater diversity of components they can implement.".

By promoting true interoperability, Microsoft could be watering down its own "integrated stack" message, but the beneficiaries would be partners and customers who could more easily field and use multi-vendor solutions. "Everyone can innovate. We'll keep innovating and so will others," Robertson said.

All of this should be good news to people wary of the old Office format wars. They remember the old days when Word users couldn't easily open a document created in an older version of Word, much less one authored in WordPerfect or Ami Pro. Some of those issues persist. Users of Word 2003 often have to download a plug-in to load a Word 2007 document. All of this is annoying to users and to the VARs supporting them.

Should Microsoft's promises come to fruition, a lot of that mess goes away. And, integrators would have to worry less about plumbing issues underlying interoperability, added Vijay Rajagopalan, director of interoperability strategy for Microsoft's U.S. interoperability and platform strategy group.

Robertson acknowledged that Microsoft's new public push for cross-vendor and cross-platform interoperability was partly a reaction to familiar regulatory and customer concerns.

"These principles are absolutely a step on our part to apply the concepts to [the European Commission's Court of First Instance] decision across all our high-volume products," he said. "There's no question about that, but we [also] have an eye on what the market needs and what customers ask us to do. You'll see … us having a broader dialogue with other vendors on interoperability."

Indeed, most of what Microsoft promised two weeks ago -- including full documentation of all its APIs and specifications -- have been things that rivals have demanded for years.

The latest push centers on the recent Microsoft "high-volume" product wave -- Office 2007, SharePoint 2007, Windows 2008 -- but Robertson said the work could also foster better interoperability between third-party products and the older versions of Office that still represent most of the installed base.

"There is relevance to past products. We wanted to have a point in time to say, here's what we're doing now and going forward, but this will benefit users of earlier versions because there are a lot of characteristics [in Office] that are similar from version to version," he said.

In addition, Microsoft now has a forum to handle issues as they arise, he said. "We've set up mechanisms to have dialogues. If people care about something they know where to go to talk to us about it."

Office format wars winding down?

On Thursday, Microsoft also launched Release 1.1 of a translator that moves Excel and PowerPoint between Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft-backed OpenXML worlds.

So far two standards camps have emerged around these formats, with Microsoft pushing Open Office XML and the "everyone but Microsoft" crowd -- IBM, Sun, etc. -- promoting ODF.

Microsoft's latest posturing may indicate that these wars are winding down. The company claims that Office going forward will accept any and all standard formats and users will easily be able to select their own default format.

Last week, Microsoft's proposed Open Office XML format was discussed at an ISO meeting in Europe and the company now has until March 29 to address issues raised in the process. Office XML has garnered ECMA recognition but the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) blessing would give it wider credibility.

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