Microsoft on Interoperability: “Significant, Strategic Change”

Today is a very important day in the history of Microsoft; it's a moment with which I am very happy to be associated. If you didn't see the big news, you can read about it here. But if you just want to skip to the "What does this mean for Office and File Formats?" part, read on.

To recap what was announced, Microsoft is making changes to its technology and business practices in the area of interoperability. These advancements are designed to make our products more open and more available to the broader software community. There are four central principles involved:

  • Ensuring open connections to our high-volume products
  • Promoting data portability via open document formats, interfaces, import/export functions and other means
  • Enhancing support for industry standards
  • Engaging more actively (than we currently do) with the industry at large on standards and other interoperability issues

This is consistent with a path we've been on with Office for quite some time. This is also reflected by many actions we've taken over the past 5 years. By "change," one can really argue that we're moving out of the slow lane into the fast lane on this topic, but we're still on the same road traveling in the same direction. A great example of the steps we've been taking is our announcement last week of broad, public availability of the Binary file format documentation.

To recap some of the ground we've already covered with respect to interoperability, here's a short list of background reading that is helpful: Interoperability Executive Customer (IEC) Council, Interoperability Vendor Alliance (IVA), CodePlex, Interoperability Home,,, Accessibility, Interop Agreements with Novell, Xandros, Linspire, Turbolinux, IdeaAlliance & XML 2007 Conference, Virtualization, OpenID, JVC, Health Care, ADO.NET, the OSP, Microsoft Public License (MPL), Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL) and a host of others (hopefully the point is clear).

There's a specific aspect of this announcement that I wanted to highlight, because it is very relevant to the ODF discussion (as well as other file formats.) You may have seen this text in connection with the announcement:

"Enhancing Office 2007 to provide greater flexibility of document formats. To promote user choice among document formats, Microsoft will design new APIs for the Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office 2007 to enable developers to plug in additional document formats and to enable users to set these formats as their default for saving documents."

For Office 2007, we will design and make available interfaces that can enable different file formats to be set as a default format in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. This addresses a key concern of organizations like BECTA who desire to have ODF or UOF or other formats enabled as a "default" for Microsoft Office applications. Should other file formats emerge in the future that are suited to word processing, spreadsheets or presentations, these new interfaces will enable their use with Office as well. In the past few years, we've seen a lot of momentum around document format support, and today's announcement will only improve the ability for others to integrate with our products.

It's important to note that the interoperability principles are unrelated to the current ISO standardization process for Open XML, and that process will proceed without regard to what is being announced today. But the objectives of Open XML now have an increased focus and sharpness. The purpose of the Ecma standard (and proposed ISO standard) is to represent content that exists in billions of binary documents, as well as delivering the type of business process integration enabled by the use of custom-defined schema. Open XML is unique in this regard.

We've said this before, but the goals of Open XML are distinctly different than ODF, PDF or UOF, and hopefully we can begin to separate the conversation about product functionality from the necessity for the Open XML standard. In our view, these have always been different conversations. The addition of these interfaces removes a potential obstacle to the adoption of other standards within our products.

The change should also underscore the idea that support for Open XML is not the same as opposition to other standards, despite many claims to this effect. Different formats are a means to achieving specific types of work, and interested communities exist to offer support for them. Today's commitment creates new opportunities to use many document formats in Office, and will allow people a greater ability to choose the formats that best suit their specific needs. This is good for our customers, but it's good for our business, too; adding these interfaces makes a lot of sense.