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Microsoft announces new Office file formats


The next version of MS Office will have a new set of file formats based on ZIP'ed XML files, and will use them by default. I'm having a tough time trying to come up with a neutral description of them. It is causing a huge stir in blogs and the tech press and is even making the mainstream press.

The Microsoft hype machine is going all-out, and while I don't agree with everything in from anti-Microsoft camp, it is hard to see how they are "open" other than the fact that they are documented. It seems to me that this is no different than if they documented the existing binary file formats: this old post from Chris Pratley (a Microsoft Word ?manager? at the time) shows the Microsoft mindset. Nothing has changed as far as I can tell.

One thing that should be noted is that Microsoft is promising is that they will offer updates to the existing version of Office that will support the new file formats (see the backwards compatible item). There are a lot of details missing (like how much it will cost), but this should be a very good thing for customers if done properly.

Some of the Microsoft propoganda is really over the top:

  • Scoble says This is BIG news. Huh? How is this any different from the existing "open" XML file format? Reality: the only difference is that there is viable competition so Microsoft is going to work a little harder to make it actually be usable.
  • Brian Jones says "our goal in Microsoft has also been to create an open and interoperable format". Reality: our customers would desert us en masse if we didn't at least pretend to have alternative to OpenDocument.
  • They didn't use OpenDocument because they needed round-trip fidelity with the existing binary formats. This is a very cunning half-truth: they definitely need to support the old binary formats, but there is no reason that they couldn't have a special mode that is "OpenDocument-only". They did this for previous versions (and competitors, back when they had them). Reality: OpenDocument is a serious threat because it would level the playing field. Don't hold your breath waiting for decent OpenDocument support from Microsoft.

Of course, some of the anti-Microsoft rhetoric is a bit overdone:

  • Whining about how the open source competitors won't support it because of license/patent/whatever issues. Reality: they have to support it. Micrsoft sets the de facto standards, period. Deal with it.
  • Microsoft might change it arbitrarily. Reality: Microsoft has the massive boat-anchor of backwards compatibility with the existing binary format. They can't afford to break that: no one would upgrade. If, in some utterly unimaginable scenario, they decide to change the XML formats without a way forward, you could go back to the binary format, and then forward again.

More links:

  • Official site for the next version of Microsoft Office. Microsoft is really pushing this hard, and this site is nicely done.
  • Tim Bray is generally positive, though it sounds to me like he might be a little afraid (not without reason, mind you).
  • Stephen O'Grady says to "follow the money". The comments (and links to their blogs) are worth reading as well.

Tags: standard

File Formats: MSOffice MSWord