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Martin LaMonica


Responding to a request from the European Union to improve data interoperability, Microsoft has committed in perpetuity to offering a royalty-free license of Office-related XML document formats.

However, the software giant decided not to follow the EU’s suggestion that Microsoft submit its XML document formats, or schemas, to an outside standards body, deciding instead to maintain in-house the ongoing development of the specifications.

Microsoft also pledged to provide appropriate documentation and encourage the creation of “filters” by others that allow other applications to read Microsoft’s word processor XML format. Sun Microsystems in September said it would create document filters for its OpenOffice open source desktop suite.

Letter of intent
On Monday, Microsoft plans to publish a letter sent about one week ago from Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president in charge of Microsoft’s Office desktop suite, to the European Commission’s Enterprise Directorate-General detailing Microsoft’s decisions. Sinofsky’s letter responded to a series of suggestions sent in July to software companies by the Commission’s Interchange of Data between Administration, a committee established to promote standardized data formats in Europe.

Among other recommendations, the IDA suggested that Microsoft issue public commitments to ensuring “nondiscriminatory” and free access to future versions of its WordProcessing ML specifications and other Office-related XML schema. It also asked that Microsoft consider putting its XML document formats, which were published shortly after the release of Office 2003 last fall, to an international standards body.

The standardized document formats will help EU governments maintain public records, such as archives, and ease document exchange between citizens, government administrations and corporations, according to the recommendations.

Jean Paoli, senior director of XML architecture at Microsoft and one of the co-authors of the XML 1.0 standard, said Microsoft’s response to the EU’s requests is a big step in realizing XML’s promise of wide-scale data interoperability.

“There’s a new world going on here. The contents (of documents) are owned by the users, not by the software–that’s very important,” Paoli said. “All of this content can be created by Office and now archived securely with XML and not only interoperate with other (desktop) applications but also back-end (software).”

Paoli said Microsoft chose to maintain the ongoing development of its XML schema for Word documents, rather than submit it to a third-party standards body, because it has the expertise in maintaining backward compatibility with older formats.

In Sinofsky’s letter, Microsoft also addressed another concern noted in the IDA’s recommendations, this one regarding binary document formats, such as Excel spreadsheets, embedded within an XML format. When data is stored in a binary format, the specific application that created that document is required to read it.

Sinofsky said Microsoft will “vigorously pursue” the task of making all data readable by other XML text editors in the XML schemas published with the next version of Office. But, he noted, Microsoft recommends some file formats, such as media files, and programs should be embeddable as binary objects within XML documents.