Microsoft's ODF support looks good ... but on paper only

Microsoft’s pledge to support ODF as a native file format in Office 2007 SP2 is good news for OpenOffice – but on paper only.The devil is in the details – and Microsoft hasn’t spelled out precisely how or if its ODF 1.

Microsoft’s pledge to support ODF as a native file format in Office 2007 SP2 is good news for OpenOffice – but on paper only.

The devil is in the details – and Microsoft hasn’t spelled out precisely how or if its ODF 1.1 implementation will support macros and other challenging aspects of document interoperability. And it will be some time before we find out. Office 2007 SP2 won’t appear until the first half of 2009.

“Details of exactly what will and won’t convert we’ll talk about in the months ahead,” said Doug Mahugh, Senior Product Manager for Microsoft Office. “There are some things supported in one format and not the other and it’s open to debate how to translate them. This is a reason for community efforts.”

Microsoft has also pledged to participate in Oasis and work on interoperability with ODF 1.2, the updated version of the ODF standard that will be supported in OpenOffice 3.0, which is in beta testing and will be finished later this year. But no doubt, there’s a bumpy road ahead.

“OpenOffice 3.0 is not the standard itself but an implementation. We’ve learned there are some things in OpenOffice that are not strictly compliant with the ISO [ODF] specification or ODF 1.1 specification so we have to make a tough decision there,” Mahugh said, noting that, for instance, OpenOffice does not implement the assignment of background color to rows in a spreadsheet in the same manner that the ODF ISO specification dictates.

Doubts abound about the promise. When I first heard about the announcement this week, I thought about timing and wondered if there were some “entities” planning to lodge a formal appeal of ISO’s recent ratification of Microsoft’s OOXML. The two month windows expires very soon -- within a week or so.

John McCreesh, marketing guru for OpenOffice, said in an email to this reporter that OpenOffice.org is “pleased” that Microsoft is supporting ODF and participating in Oasis. But his blog, fired off yesterday as the news was announced, was (far more candid and) not optimistic that it would have any real benefit to OpenOffice users or ODF backers.

“While proponents of ODF are celebrating that a victory has been won, it is more likely that the real battle is only just beginning,” McCreesh wrote in his blog yesterday, after the news leaked. “There was a certain inevitability that Microsoft would be forced to bow to market pressures and announce its acceptance of ODF.”

“However, Microsoft’s traditional approach to standards has been characterized as Embrace, Extend, Extinguish – [that is], an attempt to claim ownership and take control of a standard through abuse of its near monopoly position,” he said.

I’m not sure I agree with all of that. I’m not sure that OpenOffice has reached any level of market acceptance that would force Microsoft to respond with support for ODF. But I do think it’s possible if not likely that providing native support for ODF in Microsoft Office was one of ISO’s preconditions before anointing Microsoft’s OOXML as an ISO standard.

Microsoft employees are far more invested in delivering Office 14 – the next generation Office suite that will incorporate support for the recently approved ISO approved OOXML specification developed out of Redmond. Naturally – their paychecks depend upon it.

But that doesn't mean that members of Microsoft’s interoperability groups and open source proponents are not sincere about bridging the gap between the two worlds. Microsoft knows it will lose some government business if it doesn't fulfill its obligations.

Jason Matusow, Senior Director of Interoperability, said this announcement is a cornerstone of the document interoperability promise Microsoft made two months ago (before OOXML’s ISO approval) and he insists the company will stand behind it.

He noted that the ODF translator project is not going away – and that a revamped version 2.0 translator for Office 2000 and Office 2003 interop will come out in September or October. But more important, he promises that the ODF support in Office 2007 SP2 will have material benefit to end users and developers.

“It will have built-in ODF support and is tightly integrated with the user experience and APIs for developers to set the default format as ODF and the ability to save documents in ODF format.”

The extent to which members of the OpenOffice and ODF teams reach out to the Micrsoft developers may well influence the project's success as much as any obstacle Microsoft corporate can throw at it. It will be imperative for OpenOffice activists to hold Microsoft to those promises and for developers to exploit these APIs to ensure document interoperability. This is what will advance the cause of ODF.