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Open XML Finally Supported by MS Office


It's about time – and it happened so quietly that it went all but unnoticed in some quarters. But last month, Jim Thatcher, Principal Program Manager Lead for Office Standards, announced that Office 2013 would support two additional formats: Strict Open XML and Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2. The move closes one front in a years-long tech war between proprietary vendors and open source advocates.

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By: Terri Wells
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September 12, 2012

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It's about time – and it happened so quietly that it went all but unnoticed in some quarters. But last month, Jim Thatcher, Principal Program Manager Lead for Office Standards, announced that Office 2013 would support two additional formats: Strict Open XML and Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2. The move closes one front in a years-long tech war between proprietary vendors and open source advocates.

Steven Vaughan-Nichols covered the story for ZDNet. The tech war pitted Microsoft's own OpenXML document standard against Adobe's Open Document Format. The latest move by Microsoft will finally allow Office 2013 users to open PDF documents, edit them with Word, and save them to any format Office supports. It's been a long and winding road.

Andrew Updegrove, a founding partner of technology law firm Geismer Updegrove, describes the battle lines as “between the supporters of the Open Document Format – ODF for short – developed by OASIS, and the adopted by ISO/IEC, and a format developed and promoted by Microsoft, called Open XML, which it contributed to ECMA for adoption before also being submitted to ISO/IEC. In due course, Open XML was adopted as well, but only after a global battle that, improbably, even inspired a public protest on the sidewalks outside a standards committee meeting.”

Why would people get that excited about standards? According to Vaughan-Nichols, Microsoft wanted to control “open” document standards, which understandably made many upset. One wonders if they should have bothered – but who could have predicted it would take Microsoft more than half a decade just to fully support its own standard? That doesn't even count how long it took to support ODF and even PDF.

Why did it take so long? Well, to start with, Microsoft's Open XML standard runs to more than 4,000 pages. That fact alone might go a long way toward explaining why the software giant didn't fully support the standard in Office 2007 – or in the next two releases of the Office suite. Office 10 offered something called Transitional Open XML; according to Updegrove, Microsoft stated that this “was more useful for working with legacy documents created using Office.”

This move must have made nobody really happy. As Updegrove points out, it was “an embarrassment, because one reason that Microsoft had given for the necessity of ISO/IEC approving a second document standard was to facilitate working with the 'billions and billions of documents' that had already been created in Office. Implementers of Open XML as actually approved by ISO/IEC therefore would not be able to achieve this goal.”

Still, why should we get excited about standards? It may be hard to believe, but this actually is an important issue. Think about all of the documents your company produces that exist only in a digital form. Will you still be able to open them ten or twenty years from now? Better yet, if you have digital documents going that far back, try to open them now. Were you perhaps using WordPerfect back then? Or do you perhaps have documents even older that were saved in WordStar?

Whatever knowledge and information contained in those documents might as well not exist at all if you can't open them. The whole point of having, using and maintaining standards is to prevent this kind of loss over time. As Vaughan-Nichols concludes, “If you don't want to lose your institutional memory, open document standards support is more important than ever.”


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