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I was pretty impressed when, just before Thanksgiving, I came across a Financial Times article reporting that Microsoft was pledging to open up the specifications for its Office file formats, although those specs wouldn’t be available for 18 months or so.

That story wasn’t quite right, but, in the Financial Times’ reporter’s defense, neither was the press release that Microsoft issued that day.

Right up top, the release read: “Microsoft Corp. today announced it will take steps to offer the file format technology behind billions of documents to customers and the industry as an international standard.” The rest of the story, as Paul Harveywould say, is that the formats that Microsoft is opening are its new, XML-based Office 12-to-be formats, the ones that don’t yet exist in a shipping product, let alone in billions of documents.

A bit of time has passed now since Microsoft made the announcement, and in the meantime, my belly’s grown plump with turkey and gravy, and my temples are bulging with all the commentary and gushing and snideness I’ve read regarding this topic.

To sum up, Microsoft has pledged not to sue developers who use the firm’s new OpenXML technology, modifying the terms under which it is offering OpenXML enough (apparently) to render the format amenable to GPL’d development.

Microsoft drops the Office open standard ball. Click here to read more.

Also, OpenXML is slated for submission to and subsequent standardization by Ecma International. Also, Microsoft has said that it will “make available tools to enable old documents to capitalize on the open standard format.”

Now come the questions. First, and most importantly, can we trust Microsoft to actually open OpenXML? Well, Larry Rosen, one-time general counsel and secretary of the Open Source Initiative, has reportedly saidthat so far, Microsoft’s pledges look solid.

Rosen’s a shrewd guy who, yes, wrote the book on open source, or at least wrote a book on open source, and if his opinion at this point is positive toward Microsoft’s move, then that gives me some confidence.

Also, the Ecma standardization tack brings to mind Microsoft’s standardization moves with regard to C#, which has been fruitfully embraced by the folks from Mono, the open-source .Net implementation that now drives many cool open-source applications, including the little Tomboy Notesapplication to which I’m very attached and into which I’m now typing this column.

While Microsoft hasn’t embraced Mono—and, recently, rather lamely barred a Mono Birds of a Feather eventfrom inclusion in Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference—Microsoft hasn’t shut it down, either. Again, so far, so good.

The main reason why I’m inclined to believe that Microsoft will allow OpenXML actually to be open is that the move clearly benefits Microsoft.

Next Page: Bay State turns its back on MS.

Massachusetts’ decision to standardize on the OpenDocument Format, and, by extension, away from Microsoft Office, posed a real threat to Microsoft, and not just because it could mean fewer license dollars from the Bay State and from other organizations.

Frankly, Microsoft isn’t going to be able to avoid at least some reduction in market share, particularly since, moving forward, the file format playing field will grow much more level.

The bigger danger that Microsoft faces regarding Massachusetts and ODF is the chance that our Redmond Officemasters might be ejected from the office file formats leadership position that they’ve battled so ruthlessly to attain.

Microsoft can still lead, but because of the world’s growing appreciation for free and open standards, Microsoft has to lead in a different way.

GPL 3.0 beckons open-source community. Click here to read more.

The firm needs to look no further than Adobe and PDF to see that offering up a format with full specs and assurances that anyone can build products to read and write the format doesn’t equal surrender. Enabling and convincing others to embrace your format isn’t a loss, it’s a win.

I’ve seen a lot of commenters ask, “Why doesn’t Microsoft just support ODF?” The answer is obvious—embracing ODF would mean embracing a format that was designed without Microsoft’s products in mind.

Sure, Microsoft was invited to participate in ODF, but why do that when it could design a format focused on its own needs, without meddling from rivals?

OpenXML was designed around preserving the data and formatting expressed in Microsoft’s baroque binary formats. This is definitely an important design goal, and certainly the most important goal for Microsoft to achieve, because so many documents out there already exist in these formats.

Does this mean curtains for ODF, and that OpenXML will reign supreme? Probably not. OpenXML will have the advantage of shipping along with the market leader, but ODF enjoys broader support,and what appears to be a cleaner and more forward-looking design.

I really have no idea which format will end up on top, if either will, or if we’ll end up with some merged standard set of formats. Frankly, as long as the apps I use can read and open either format well, I don’t really care.

Is Microsoft telling the truth about open standards? Click here to read more.

Sure, Office 12 isn’t going to support ODF, but Office 12 won’t run on my computer, anyway.

It would’ve been great to see Microsoft go all out and open up its binary formats as well, but I’ll take what I can get., and all of Office’s other rivals, have long been chasing Microsoft’s formats. It appears that Microsoft’s move to XML, coupled with appropriately open licensing, will yield more innovation and interoperability for all. For that, I’m cautiously thankful.

Way to go, Massachusetts.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

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