Well, after years of pushing the interoperability line, Microsoft do seem to be actually entertaining the concept of working with others with the announcement that Microsoft Office 2007 with support OpenDocument Format. I am sure the news sites will be crawling with this any time now, but what does it actually mean for us? Is this a win for Open Standards or just a PR play?

Well, I am not entirely sure. I think there are two core questions here:

  • How far will Microsoft extend its concept of interoperability?
  • How does ODF actually fit into Microsoft Office?

For the former, I am fairly cynical of Microsoft’s definition of interoperability. This is not without good reason – I have been invited to many Microsoft events designed to solicit feedback and opinion (Microsoft Technical Summit in Redmond, Open Source discussion session at Reading, various press sessions and discussion events). The problem with Microsoft’s position is that they largely approach interoperability as a one-way mirror; it is a means to interact one way, but not employ the same principles the other way. This is because two-way interoperability involves a loosening of control. Microsoft seem define interoperability as ‘making things work with specific vendors’. At a recent discussion session at Microsoft UK in Reading, Nick McGrath displayed a slide with Windows in the middle and a series of other products around it in a circle. The slide inferred that Microsoft’s interoperability is defined through agreements, discussions and mutual business relationships with these vendors. Well, it just doesn’t work that way. Interoperability is about allowing the flow of information whether it fits your business plan or not.

For the second issue we need to look at how Microsoft will actually support ODF in Microsoft Office 2007. Much of this chatter about Microsoft and ODF is based around the Open XML Translator project. The press release says “in essence, Microsoft will fund and provide architectural guidance to three partners to build the Open XML Translator, a set of tools being developed as open source that enable translation of Office Open XML and ODF documents”. It also says, “as part of this announcement, Microsoft is also announcing the creation of an Interoperability Center for Office 2007 – an add-on that adds itself to the file menu in Office 2007, enabling .PDF, .XLS and .ODF interoperability”. Microsoft have been open that this ODF support is driven by government demand.

Although this looks promising, a colleague informed me that little, if any code actually exists to do this right now and it is all purely roadmap huzzah, although an early release should be ready soon. It is also interesting to note that this translation project may be potentially buildable on free software, and that brings a whole raft of potential, although naturally licensing issues will need to be determined. If Microsoft are really committed to interoperability, this translation project should allow the use of Microsoft file formats in OpenOffice.org, Abiword, KOffice and other tools. This is the true test of their word.

Of course, all of this means absolutely nothing without proper education. Sure, people like us get all fired up and excited about file formats, but the regular Joe and Josephine on the street don’t. It is extremely unlikely that the ODF file format will be on by default or even be that discoverable from a usability angle, so we need to educate people about why they should use ODF and what its benefits are. This all boils down to advocacy and the same core concepts that I bang on about in my talks – punters need a reason why they should use ODF, and a reason that is not just based on ethics. There needs to be a core functional reason why ODF makes sense within their context and contextual links. Sure, in government the context demands interoperability and transparency of information transport, but for home users its not the same. The various pro-ODF projects need to think about this carefully. I would love to see something like the Creative Commons for ODF – really simple, attractive information about why you should care.

While writing this I just had a call from a few contacts queueing up some conference calls and interviews. I will keep you posted.

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