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British Library and Others Join Microsoft in Document Standards Effort
Posted On November 28, 2005
Seeking to promote digital preservation of documents composed in Microsoft Office formats, the British Library and a number of other enterprises have joined Microsoft's effort to define a new standard for Office Open XML. Microsoft announced its Office Open XML initiative in June 2005, stating that the next generation of its Office products, known as Office "12," would be XML-based by default, storing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in the new open format. The company said it intends to document the format schema and allow third parties to write software that works with such files under a royalty-free license. On Nov. 22, Microsoft announced that it would submit—along with its co-sponsors—the Office Open XML specification to Ecma International, a European technology consortium.

Jean Paoli, Microsoft's senior director of XML architecture, said: "By co-submitting with a broad array of industry leaders the Office Open XML file formats to Ecma International today for standardization, we hope to further foster both innovation and interoperability across office-productivity applications and tools, content management systems, content assembly systems and broad line-of-business systems."

Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture for the British Library, commented: "We think it's fantastic that Microsoft is opening up the MS Office formats to standardization."

In addition to the British Library, partners in the Office Open XML standards initiative include Apple, BP, Essilor, Intel Corp., NextPage, Statoil ASA, and Toshiba. Philip Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide product marketing at Apple, commented: "Apple is pleased to support an Ecma standard for Microsoft Office Open XML document formats, which will make them more open and widely available to all."

Microsoft's moves to open its Office formats come at a time when the company faces considerable pressure from the open source and open formats movements worldwide. China, Japan, South Korea, and India have announced initiatives to build open source alternatives to Microsoft products and operating systems.

Some nations may be motivated by a desire to save money; The Economist reports that government sales revenues for Microsoft approach $3 billion a year. But another motivation is preservation—knowing that an electronic government document will be readable and usable long after the original software to produce the document has gone out of service. The State of Massachusetts has moved to adopt the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument, or ODF, a competing open source format supported by IBM and Sun Microsystems), for use by state agencies.

Not only does Microsoft face pressure from governments and libraries, it also increasingly confronts demands from industry. As enterprises use XML to enable transactions among servers and between servers and clients, more and more demands will arise to allow Office formats to similarly interact.

The British Library's Farquahr said: "I think that it is significant that Microsoft is taking this step. Microsoft is listening to customers who want to ensure that they have full access to the content that they have created. The route that they are following—standards-based followed by standardization—is a very positive one, and I anticipate that the resulting standardized formats will have excellent preservation properties. There are many alternate routes that they could have taken!"

Early in November, Microsoft announced a project to digitize 100,000 rare and out-of-print books from the British Library collection. [For more information, see the NewsBreak at] Farquhar says that that effort is not directly related to the Open XML announcement: "Some people think we are adopting Microsoft formats as our standard for digital preservation. This is not right; we are striving to make sure that content we receive in MS formats will be preserved." He continued: "What format will we deliver? We deliver a lot of articles and in many formats. We deliver content in PDF, Office Open, ODF, TIFF —whatever format the customer wants."

Indeed, if the Office Open XML initiative achieves a truly open standard, and if future Microsoft Office products adhere, it should enable simple translations both to and from OpenDocument and other standards.


Richard W. Wiggins is an author and speaker who specializes in Internet topics.  He is a senior information technologist at the computer center at Michigan State University.

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