Developers reverse engineer MS-Office; add OpenDocument compatibility

Developers reverse engineer MS-Office; add OpenDocument compatibility

Summary: Although the timing with a very recently issued Request for Information (RFI) by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is apparently coincidental, the ODF Foundation is talking about how a plug-in for Microsoft Office that allows Office users to save their documents in the OpenDocument Format (ODF) has been finished.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Although the timing with a very recently issued Request for Information (RFI) by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is apparently coincidental, the ODF Foundation is talking about how a plug-in for Microsoft Office that allows Office users to save their documents in the OpenDocument Format (ODF) has been finished.  First news of it's existence turned up in an interview of the foundation's founder and president Gary Edwards by Groklaw publisher Pamela Jones (see OpenDocument Foundation to MA: We Have a Plugin).  I was alerted to the news by a comment that ZDNet reader Edward Meyers published yesterday on one of my blog entries about the ratification of ODF as an international standard by the International Organisation of Standardization (ISO).  ODF's ratification by the ISO is good news for ODF.  But overall, since the ISO is apparently happy to also ratify other formats (including Microsoft's), the word "standard" really doesn't come to mind in terms of what the ISO sets or ratifies. 

Given that there was no official news regarding the plug-in announcement, I checked in with Edwards to find out about this mystery plug-in, how it came to be, and where those who might want it can get it.  Edwards was suprisingly candid about how the developers, which he would not identify, reverse engineered Microsoft Office to achieve their goal.  Edwards does not think there are legal implications to this practice.  I'm not so sure.  Here's what Edwards told me (my questions are left out.  It's pretty self explanatory):

I had converstation Timothy Vaverchak [Director of the Open Source Initiative in Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD)].  A lot of people told ITD that a plug-in [so MS-Office could save and open ODF-compliant files] was impossible.  Although it had no involvement in this effort, Sun assured the EU and Massachusetts that they wold work to create something.  And they did in the form of a conversion server that will convert docuements forward and backward.  It's very fast.   

But to do a plug-in, you have to approach this from left field.  You can't approach this through the traditional methods of writing a plug-in for Microsoft Office.  There's nothing in any of the books that have been written about doing conversion at the file format level.  You've got to go binary. It's a process of watching how Microsoft Office works with its own file formats. Generally speaking, this is called reverse enginneering. It's where you  study the behavior of the application, trapping the system calls and the API implementation. If you stick to the behavior fof the API being called, that's how you learn about the full range of what the API can do.  There's a community of people out there who are very adept at reverse engineering and publishing books about undocumented APIs.

I can't talk about who did the work.  ODF is dedicated to the promotion of OpenDocument and we put out a call for help a year ago.  We knew the best first step toward adoption of OpenDocument would be this plug-in.  So, we put out a call for help.  [How we got from that call for help to this plug-in]: I'd rather not go into it. It doesn't put certain developers at risk.  I'm just not authorized to talk about it.  It's small group of
people who participated and now that we have it, we have to decide what do we do with it.  Do we open source it?  Do we give it away?

With Vaverchak, I offered to deliver it to him (for testing) whenever he's ready. Hopefully, by the time I bring it to him, we will have resolved the issues regarding what we're going to do with it. 

To be honest, I not convinced of the serendipity here; the way a plug-in surfaces at nearly exactly the same time that Massachusetts issued an RFI for the same thing.  But that doesn't change the fact that the plot has once again thickened now that has become even easier to make the switch away from Microsoft's formats despite the fact that Microsoft has been opening them up for usage by developers and others.  I also can't help but wonder if Microsoft may look to take legal action here. I'm not bothering to contact Brad Smith or any of Microsoft's lawyers because the their standard answer to the question of whether they might take legal action is always that they can't comment on lawsuits that haven't been filed. Perhaps someone else can tell me what the end user license agreement for MS-Office says (I don't have one handy).  But I'm pretty sure reverse-engineering is one of those things you're not supposed to do.  On the other hand, who would Microsoft sue once the code is out there? The customers who use it? Doubtful.

Topic: Microsoft

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16 comments
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  • If Microsoft had a copy of the plug-in...

    ... do you think it might be possible to analyze the plug-in to determine how to block its action?

    Though I don't think Microsoft will do so, let alone sue anyone.

    Microsoft's easiest defense is Why bother?
    Office is issued, Microsoft's formats help provide the needed functionality, all's right with the world.

    Why should very many people or organizations use another format which probably will be less useful and will certainly require extra trouble and expense?

    Only a few people have a philosophical objections to software which comes from one vendor.

    Only a few people have philosophical principles which will require them to avoid proprietary software for document retention.
    And even many of those will be persuaded by Microsoft's certified openness.

    ODF may be one action designed as opposition to Microsoft that the company can defeat by ignoring.
    Anton Philidor
    • It all depends, Anton

      [i]Why should very many people or organizations use another format which probably will be less useful and will certainly require extra trouble and expense?[/i]

      If all of their needs are met by a 100% Microsoft environment, there's no reason they should care.

      If, on the other hand, they need to share data with non-Microsoft applications there're a great deal of reason to use data formats that non-Microsoft software can work with.

      As for the "less useful and more trouble and expense" part, you're assuming quite a bit that's not in evidence.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Ecosystem.

        Microsoft wants to see proliferation of software connected to Office but not authored by Microsoft. Adds to the reasons for buying Office.
        The formats will be designed and maintained so that they do as much as possible for the non-Microsoft software.

        The environment is unlikely to be 100% Microsoft.


        You're right, I'm assuming the new version of Office will do things that past versions of Office, let alone any other office suites on the market, are unable to do.
        Seems a reasonably safe bet.
        Anton Philidor
        • Red Tide

          [i]Microsoft wants to see proliferation of software connected to Office but not authored by Microsoft. Adds to the reasons for buying Office.
          The formats will be designed and maintained so that they do as much as possible for the non-Microsoft software.[/i]

          Microsoft already does that by providing APIs to use Office components. The trouble with that is the very advantage it offers Microsoft: it's program-centric rather than data-centric.

          What we're seeing in enterprise computing is that model reaching its scalability limit.

          [i]I'm assuming the new version of Office will do things that past versions of Office, let alone any other office suites on the market, are unable to do.[/i]

          Undoubtedly new versions of MSOffice will do things other suites won't, but that's far from a guarantee that it will do things that ODF can't handle.

          I'm still waiting on the "where are these marvellous capabilities that ODF can't support" question. With all the hot air coming from Redmond on the subject, you'd think that they would have put together a list by now.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Wrong emphasis

          The need for something like ODF is NOT to support Word Processing and Spreadsheets. It's to support the myriad of OTHER applications that need access to the data being generated by word processors and spreadsheets.

          Now as for the ODF plug-in this could actually be a good way to wean people off of Office-dependence. Right now everyone's in a vicious cycle. Why do you buy Office? To read all the documents in Office formats. Why are all the documents in Office formats? Because everyone bought Office.
          Robert Crocker
          • Another circle.

            Why are "the myriad of OTHER applications that need access to the data being generated by word processors and spreadsheets" written in the expectation that Office will be the word processor and spreadsheet software?

            Because everyone buys Office.

            Why does everyone buy Office?

            Partly because all of those OTHER applications work better with it or rely upon it.



            And partly because... everyone believes Office works well.

            Everyone wouldn't buy it otherwise.
            Anton Philidor
  • Where?

    [i]Perhaps someone else can tell me what the end user license agreement for MS-Office says (I don't have one handy). But I'm pretty sure reverse-engineering is one of those things you're not supposed to do. [/i]

    Apparently, EULAs are without force in quite a few countries (IIRC Germany is one of them) so this isn't necessarily a problem.

    It's theoretically OK in the USA, too, but "theoretically" doesn't help when you have the world's richest company out to make a Horrible Example of you in US courts. No matter how right you are, your great-grandchildren still die broke.

    The fun part comes from "laches" -- the doctrine in law that if Microsoft never enforced that clause before against (for instance) the makers of assistive technology add-ons, they can't start now.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • They haven't published it yet

      Read the article at Groklaw and Gary chimes in later that it is going to MA, CA, and the EU first and they aren't sure yet if they will sell or give it away. You can email Gary Edwards his contact info should be listed at http://opendocument.us/ to get more details if they aren't already posted there.

      Also there are 2 other plugin projects;

      Clever Age's Import filter http://sourceforge.net/projects/ooo-word-filter which is partly stable and incomplete.

      and O3 http://o3.phase-n.com/ which isn't complete either.

      There are already a few dozen converter projects out there that are in already in alpha and beta releases there is a list here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_applications_supporting_OpenDocument

      That isn't even to mention that Abiword , KOffice (OpenDocument is the native format in 1.5), Writely, and OO/Star Office all have support for it right now.
      Edward Meyers
      • Huh?

        I don't see the connection between the parent and grandparent posts. Am I missing something or was it my usual hit-the-wrong-button error?
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • This was suppose to go elsewhere

          This was in response to this http://www.zdnet.com/5208-10532-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=20590&messageID=395165&start=-36

          Don't know how that happend??
          Edward Meyers
  • Serendipity

    "To be honest, I not convinced of the serendipity here; the way a plug-in surfaces at nearly exactly the same time that Massachusetts issued an RFI for the same thing."

    Serendipity has nothing to do with it. I would almost guarantee that someone with an IQ higher than their shoe size recognized the need for this plug-in.
    neutro511@...
  • NOTHING is impossible (in software)

    Therein lies (good word) M$' intentions to keep a tight reign on the entire ecosystem. Code can be changed and modified - so there is no such thing as an impossible programming task if it is already running somewhere else.

    I might even respect M$ if they said that it would cost THEM too much money - and that's why its infeasible. Its impossible to remove IE from the OS - but IE7 is an add-on that's NOT encumbered to the OS (yet). Its impossible to add ODF functionality to Office - but here's a plug-in. How can you say things are impossible yet claim to be innovative?
    Roger Ramjet
  • Legality of reverse engineering

    It depends where the reverse engineering was done. In Europe, under certain conditions, RE is not illegal regardless of what the end-user licence says, according to EC Directive 91/250/EEC. Briefly, you must be a licensee of the software. Interoperability cannot be achieved by reading previously published information. The RE effort is limited to only those parts required to achieve interoperability. The fuzzy part is the aim of the RE. Obviously not to create something similar to the software being REd. Use for goals other than interoperability. It is not to be given to others "except when necessary for the interoperability of the independently created computer program.
    The "ifs" and "buts" are there however it does seem nothing is wrong as far as the EU is concerned. Where the problem would start is how a product that was legally developed using RE in Europe sits against US law
    EDoy
  • Office plug-in bound to happen

    I don't see why this is causing such news. It has long been known that people would develop plug-ins in order to accomplish this. Microsoft even said, back in October 2005, "We fully expect partners, independent companies, and competitors to provide converters between our Open XML formats and the OpenDocument formats, and are aware of a few projects along these lines already." (http://www.tgdaily.com/2005/10/26/microsoft_denies_odf_for_office_12/index.html)

    It should come as no surprise that someone made a plugin for Office to do this conversion smoothly. The *means* by which they did it, however, may be newsworthy... I'm not really sure what all they needed to "reverse engineer"; the MS quote above seems to imply that it would be possible to write such a plugin/converter without problems.
    PB_z
  • Interoperability

    Is interoperability and disclosure about how the APIs work not what the EU vs MS is all about. Was interoperability and failure to disclose, so MS stuff would work better than others stuff not what the anti-trust case in the US was about. Why would MS sue over information that they were supposed to disclose anyway but didn't?
    bigpicture
  • The legal issues mentioned are enough reasons to implement open software.

    Sentences like "Edwards does not think there are legal implications to this practice. I'm not so sure ... But to do a plug-in, you have to approach this from left field. You can't approach this through the traditional methods of writing a plug-in for Microsoft Office. There's nothing in any of the books that have been written about doing conversion at the file format level. "
    These sentences show the problem of vendor lock-in - you want to have a certain feature like open, standardized formats and you depend entirely on the vendor. If MS decides to sue the developers the plugin is dead.
    However wanting to use standards if available is an entirely acceptable wish outside of the MS dominated office software market - without standards lots of things wouldn't work in this world as flawlessly as they do, from the internet to the telephone network.
    Get rid of MS - even if initally there might be some setbacks. when my depertment switched a long time back from Frame maker to Word 5 (?) there were huge setbacks and we managed to survive anyway. But the managers made a political decision and we had to follow.
    stmueller