New Microsoft Office file formats

The next version of Microsoft Office is going to be the first which uses ‘open’ file formats by default. There’s a video here where Robert Scoble interviews Brian Jones, a program manager on the Word team, about the new formats, which are ZIP files containing XML. Brian has also started a blog talking about this.

This is definitely a good move, and a brave one, by Microsoft, though I imagine they have largely been forced into it and may not have had too much choice. The secret binary formats have been reverse-engineered now to such a degree that several other packages, most notably OpenOffice and Apple iLife, do a good, though not perfect job, of reading them, so there’s less to be gained form keeping them secret. And having moved both my email and my blogs between many different systems recently, a key question for me is always how easily I can get my data out of any particular system. This announcement will make me more likely, rather than less likely, to use Microsoft products in future.

The sad thing, for me, was to hear the excitement and enthusiasm in Scoble’s voice about what a fabulous new idea this was, when he should have been asking, “Isn’t this exactly what OpenOffice has been doing for years, right down to the choice of the basic format?”

When was the last time anything really novel came out of Microsoft? It’s a rhetorical question, really. What Microsoft have traditionally been good at is now so commoditized that it’s like asking when the last time something really novel came out of Dell. That’s not really their job any more.

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I think this signals that Microsoft will be locking more with the server integration than the stand alone product. An open format obviously makes it easier to produce competing office applications. However, server side, it encourages more use of the office products, particularly the integrated features.

The bit that I wonder about is how the patents surrounding these formats will work. Will Microsoft freely license them? Might such a license be implied?

Microsoft, in my opinion, has always been stronger on the business side than the engineering side. They have two cash cows, and they are not about to simply give up one of them. Microsoft is evolving and transistioning, but htey are not giving up.

I’m not sure that this is an open format.
My understanding of the situation is that Microsoft has managed to get an XML format registered so is a ‘standard’. Unfortunately MS Office does not completely abide by this standard, so if you want to interface to their real world Office file formats, you will still have to reverse engineer their files to some extent to ensure compatibility.

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