Microsoft's support for ODF docs - don't hold your breath

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Last week, Microsoft announced support for the ODF document format in Microsoft Office. But don’t get too excited about it, it’s a long time coming.

Last week, Microsoft announced support for the ODF document format in Microsoft Office. But don’t get too excited about it, for it’ll be long time coming.

The support for ODF documents won’t come until sometime in the first half of 2009 with the release of the next Service Pack for Office 2007. In other words it could take a year or more to see ODF support in Office 2007and at least 7 months from now.

The Microsoft announcement had more to do with preventing large customers from switching to Open Office or other rivals which have ODF support now. Some organizations may want to standardize on the ODF format (instead of Microsoft OOXML, .docx format) and understandably Microsoft would prefer that they buy MS Office to do that.

It’s another step on Microsoft’s slow acceptance of the ODF standard as something they have to work with. First they tried to ignore ODF, but that became difficult when ODF was given the ISSO standard approval. Then came the ‘support without no responsibility’ tactic where Microsoft encouraged outsiders to put ODF support into Office via an open source project. This was clever because if it failed, Microsoft wouldn’t be to blame, but if the ODF add-in was effective then Microsoft could jump in and take the credit (and the code).

Microsoft has now realized they can’t kill ODF but would still prefer that people use their OOXML document system so they’ve committed to ODF support in Office but on a long timeframe.

We continue to believe that Microsoft OOXML format has at least one major virtue over ODF (ie macro blocking) but that’s not to say that ODF is bad. Clearly we’re moving into an era with multiple document standards and Microsoft Office has to properly deal with that, whether Microsoft likes it or not.

There was some other interesting news in the ODF support announcement (you can see the full original statement on the Office Watch web site )

ODF support for Office 2003 and before

No change here – Microsoft will continue to ‘collaborate with the open source community’ on ODF support for earlier versions of MS Office. Since Microsoft would prefer customers to buy Office 2007 with upcoming ODF support, don’t expect too much from that collaboration.

Office 2007 and OOXML standard support

It may seem surprising but Office 2007 doesn’t fully support Microsoft’s own OOXML (docx) format. That is because Office 2007 was released long before the OOXML standard was officially ratified in March 2008. There were many small technical changes to the standard after Office 2007 went on sale. That’s why Microsoft now says OOXML is “already substantially supported in Office 2007″.

For the vast majority of people the differences between the OOXML standard and the implementation in Office 2007 are tiny and irrelevant. A fully compliant OOXML document should still open in Office 2007.

Microsoft has said they’ll “plan to update that support in the next major version release of the Microsoft Office system”. That wording is carefully chosen because Microsoft knows that ‘Office 14’ probably won’t fully comply with the OOXML standard. There will inevitably be technical compromises and changes to support new and changed features in the next Office.

What’s really important (and notably lacking from the announcement) is a commitment to fully document differences between any standard (OOXML, ODF or other) and the implementation in Microsoft Office products.  That documentation will give confidence to developers working with MS Office and other products.

PDF and XPS support

Currently Office 2007 users have to download a separate package from Microsoft so they can save documents to the PDF or Microsoft rival XPS format. There’s no technical reason for this, it’s some petty dispute between Adobe and Microsoft.

From Office 2007 Service Pack 2 (again, due first half of 2009) you won’t need to install the separate PDF / XPS package.

Uniform Office Format

As if two international document standards aren’t enough – the mainland Chinese government has their own document standard. Uniform Office Format (UOF) has the weight of the Chinese government and population behind it – a market Microsoft can’t ignore.

So Microsoft is falling back on the ‘open source developer’ plan that they tried with ODF support in Office. This time they are supporting the development of UOF / MS Office tools by third-parties. Again, Microsoft will happily jump on the bandwagon if the tools work well and UOF becomes prevalent.

What about the Mac?

Over one thousand words on document formats and Microsoft Office for Windows – but not one word on MS Office for Mac.

That’s probably because it’s far too embarrassing to talk about.

Despite a long string of broken promises, Office for Mac users are still waiting for the ability to fully read and write to the OOXML. The beta format converter from December 2007 is a token start and not the promised solution.

Given that track record, it’s no surprise that ODF support in Office for Mac isn’t even on the agenda for a public announcement.

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