Microsoft's OOXML viewers, translators, SDK to help interop with Firefox, OpenOffice?

I must admit I'm more than a bit skeptical when any company, Microsoft in particular, goes out of its way to make rivals' software work better with its own, especially if it's a cash cow product.But here we are, nine months after Microsoft announced its document interoperability initiative, announcing the availability of improved document viewers, translators and software development kits to improve interoperability between Microsoft Office with OpenOffice, Firefox and Apache-Java.

I must admit I'm more than a bit skeptical when any company, Microsoft in particular, goes out of its way to make rivals' software work better with its own, especially if it's a cash cow product.

But here we are, nine months after Microsoft announced its document interoperability initiative, announcing the availability of improved document viewers, translators and software development kits to improve interoperability between Microsoft Office with OpenOffice, Firefox and Apache-Java. Guess it's the price the Redmond, Wash. software giant paid to get ISO's approval of its Office OpenXML format as a real standard, a decision reached earlier this year that caused a lot of anguish for open source backers and backers of the Open Document Format (ODF) used in OpenOffice.

On Dec 3, Microsoft officially announced the availability of its Open XML Document Viewer, Open XML/ODF Translators Version 2.5 and the Apache POI Java SDKfor OpenXML.

So what does each of these promise to do?

The OpenXML Document Viewer provides interoperability from Open XML to HTML formats, thus allowing access to any documents from any web browser and mobile devices, Microsoft reports.This project includes a plug-in for Firefox (a chief competitor of Microsoft Internet Explorer), which allows Firefox users on either Windows or Linux to view OpenXML documents without installing Microsoft Office. No doubt, a big win for Firefox. Will we see a similar plug in for Google's Chrome?

Microsoft also announced availability of version 2.5 of its existing Open XML/ODF Translator. This version, Microsoft notes, provides "practical" interoperability between ODF documents and OpenXML due to an add-in for Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 and XP. What this means is that users of OpenOffice will get much better built-in support for Microsoft Office documents, or so Microsoft says. The company also announced a set of ODF 1.1-compatible templates that offer better fidelity in translations, enhancements for translating charts in spreadsheets, easier installation and better reliability. This should come as great news to users and developers of OpenOffice, who have claimed that growth of the open source Office suite has been stymied by interop problems in the past. They say that while document interop between the two Office suite is decent, less-than-perfect interoperability makes it unacceptable to business users. Hopefully, these translators will make it easier for OpenOffice users to work with Microsoft Office users and make it easier for Sun and IBM to sell their suites to businesses.

The third offspring of the DII is the Apache POI Java SDK for OpenXML, which is essentially a set of Java libraries for reading and writing files in formats used by Microsoft Office. This makes it easier for Java developers to work with Open XML documents and is a product of the Apache POI project announced in June 2007. The solutions announced today will "improve the installation, performance and stability of translated documents," Microsoft claimed. So this version will work much better and thus be more usable by Java-Apache developers, many of whom play in the open source world.

These are very big announcements from Microsoft, whose Open XML format likely garnered ISO approval in part because of its pledge to provide real interoperability with ODF in the future. Microsoft's DII was announced just before ISO gave its approval in late March of this year. Some in the OpenOffice community claim OOXML is "dead in the water" and questioned the value of Microsoft's latest contributions. Still, it should be interesting to see the extent to which they improve interoperability with ODF documents and rival browsers and developer tools.

Please test them and send me your input. Whenever these translators ship, I search and search for end users who have tested them pretty thoroughly and often cannot connect with enough of the users to generate a report card. Any volunteers?