Q&A: Microsoft Co-Sponsors Submission of Office Open XML Document Formats to Ecma International for Standardization

Editors’ Note, Dec. 14, 2005
– The list of partner comments at the end of this article has been added to since original publication.)

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 21, 2005 – Millions of people around the world have created billions of business productivity documents using Microsoft Office over the years – many of which are in the process of being archived and converted to more open, accessible and manageable digital content using XML technology.

To help businesses more effectively unleash the power of these documents, many of which are critical to everyday business-process improvement, Microsoft announced today it is co-submitting with a broad array of industry participants the Office Open XML file format technology to Ecma International, a well-known European standards body, for open standardization. This announcement follows an announcement the company made last June, in which it said it would make Office Open XML, the file format behind Microsoft Office documents, the default file format for the company’s next version of Office, codenamed Office “12.”

PressPass spoke with Jean Paoli, Microsoft’s senior director of XML architecture and one of the co-creators of the XML 1.0 standard with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), to learn more about why Microsoft is standardizing on the Office XML file format and how customers will benefit.

PressPass: Why does Microsoft want to standardize the Office Open XML document format?

Paoli: Standardizing the Office Open XML file formats would be one more in a series of milestones Microsoft has attained in realizing its overall vision of making it easy to create, access and share data between different systems on the network. This vision was developed in response to the fact that companies are often forced to adopt inefficient and duplicative business processes because business-critical information frequently ends up locked inside data storage systems, such as a database that employees don’t know how to access, or business-productivity documents, such as a long-forgotten spreadsheet stored on an employee’s PC. We want documents to be represented using a standardized, stable and open format so that the owners of the content can use and repurpose it in whatever way they want, independent of the software they used to create it.

Jean Paoli, Senior Director, XML Architecture, Microsoft

To make this vision a reality, we’ve banked heavily on building broad support for XML – on the desktop, servers and services – so that users can connect to these systems and access information any time, from any place and on any device. Some of our earliest steps involved incorporating XML technology into various Microsoft products, such as Windows, SQL Server and BizTalk Server, so that customers could process XML on the server. Then we brought Web services to the desktop in 2003 by integrating XML into the Office system – a huge accomplishment, because until this point, XML had been used mainly on servers to facilitate enterprise transaction processing and data exchange. In another major milestone last June, Microsoft announced it is adopting XML as the default file format for the next major version of Office, codenamed Office “12.”

By co-submitting with a broad array of industry leaders the Office Open XML file formats to Ecma International today for standardization, we hope to further foster both innovation and interoperability across office-productivity applications and tools, content management systems, content assembly systems and broad line-of-business systems. Working with participating companies like Apple, BP, Essilor, Intel, NextPage, StatOil and Toshiba on a committee that is open to all Ecma members, we hope to create an open standard that will enable both public and private-sector customers, technology providers and developers around the globe to work with the Office Open XML formats without barriers, with or without Microsoft products.

PressPass: Why does integrating XML into Microsoft Office play such an integral role in attaining this vision?

Paoli: Without XML, the way a document is created doesn’t include any information about its actual content – all that is captured is the way the content is styled. XML is about creating documents in which the content is delimited, or set apart, by tags that explain the meaning of that content. So in a birth certificate, for example, a user could tag content elements such as the name, birth date, time of birth and place of birth. Having regions of meaning in a document conveyed via the XML file format allows documents of all kinds to be shared across the organization and via Web services.

Numerous industries, including financial services, insurance, governments and healthcare organizations of all sizes are using “custom-defined XML schemas” to create their own regions of meaning that are specific to their business in conjunction with the Office Open XML file format. This allows them to reuse the content across productivity applications, such as Office, and across other kinds of tools like databases, workflows and server processes. The Office Open XML file formats introduce significantly enhanced XML formats for Microsoft Word and Excel, and the first XML format for Microsoft PowerPoint. These new formats improve file and data management, data recovery and interoperability with line-of-business systems beyond what is possible with Office 2003 binary file formats, such as .doc, .xls and .ppt.

PressPass: Does making XML the default file format for Office “12”productivity applications signal an end to binary file formats as we know them?

Paoli: The Office Open XML file formats aren’t a standalone file format. Rather, they build on the rich functionality of the binary file formats that have traditionally been a part of Office applications.

For more than 15 years, millions of Microsoft customers have been creating and saving billions of documents in the .doc, .xls and .ppt formats that everyone knows and is familiar with. In turn, Microsoft has been adding characteristics to these binary file formats that customers have asked for. These characteristics reflect the astonishing array of customers we’ve worked so hard to support over the years, from doctors to machinists, lawyers to teachers, and nurses to scientists, in areas as diverse as Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. So these formats support many different business scenarios, languages and accessibility options.

We began transitioning the functionality of these binary formats to become XML almost 10 years ago. Then with the deep integration of XML in Office 2003, organizations of all stripes, from governments, healthcare and financial services to manufacturing and legal services, began embracing XML to exchange data among systems, platforms and applications. This widespread adoption has also led to an enormous amount of activity from Microsoft’s partners – more than 300,000 developers are now building Office-based solutions that utilize XML.

Both the widespread customer adoption and the development activities of our partners around XML in Office provide evidence of the maturity of XML in Office. So the Office Open XML file formats represent all the characteristics of the Office binary file formats, while making it easier for people to connect to the different islands of data in the enterprise.

The Office Open XML file formats will provide 100 percent of the functionality of the binary formats, as well as total backward compatibility through all past versions of Office. Microsoft plans to ship converters with Office “12” that enable users to transform binary documents to XML documents without any information or formatting loss. We’re also providing add-ons to older products, starting with Office 2000, so that customers won’t need to upgrade products or spend more money to take advantage of Microsoft software to support the open standard. And over time, many other tools will likely appear.

PressPass: What will customers gain by the Office Open XML file formats becoming a standard?

Paoli: Working with Ecma to standardize the Open XML file formats means that the new international standard will be fully documented in great detail to make it an extremely stable file format. This stability delivers two main advantages: It enables broad adoption, guaranteeing future-proof archiving for billions of documents and millions of public and private-sector customers worldwide, and it enables partners to develop a wide set of tools and platforms that foster interoperability across office productivity applications and with line-of-business systems.

Working with Ecma also means that the standard will be formed cooperatively. Having a committee that is open to all Ecma members and is comprised of a broad array of industry participants from all over the world who will maintain and evolve the standard signifies that the Office Open XML document format will be a truly open standard that businesses can rely on to unleash the power of their existing documents, thus improving business processes.

PressPass: How open a file format is Office Open XML?

Paoli: Office Open XML is an open format because, as I already mentioned, the committee that will ratify Office Open XML as an open standard is open to anyone that is a member of the Ecma standards body and wants to be part of the process.

Another reason Office Open XML is an open format is because XML itself is an inherently interoperable text-based standard that has been defined by the W3C. We have used this standard as the foundation for the Office Open XML file formats, and we have worked very hard to ensure that the work we have accomplished using XML is open, too. For instance, two years ago, we announced a program to publish our Office 2003 XML formats on the Internet. We also provided a simple, open and royalty-free licensing program to support republication of the specification and development of format converters, and we were very happy when this program was favorably acknowledged by public sector experts like the Danish IT ministry and the European Commission’s IDA (Interchange of Data between Administrations) committee.

Finally, Office Open XML is open because the license for Office Open XML is open to anyone. We are expanding the language of the current royalty-free license to specifically enable developers who work only with open source licensing to also be able to work with Office Open XML. This will enable any customer or technology provider to use the file formats in its own systems without financial consideration to Microsoft.

While we see today’s announcement as a significant one for our business, we strongly believe that other formats will continue to play an important role for customers. It would be a mistake for anyone to think that there can be only one or even a few document formats that will address every customer need, both now and in the future – indeed it would be missing the whole point of XML, which is the almost infinite ability to use and reuse data.

PressPass: How has Microsoft been involved up to this point with XML standards efforts? Has the company worked with Ecma before?

Paoli: Microsoft has a long track record of developing and supporting industry standards and working with standards organizations such as Ecma. For example, we have been an integral player in the XML movement since its inception. I joined Microsoft in 1996 because I believed it was a company that could really help deliver on the overall vision many of us in the SGML (Standard General Markup Language) community shared for providing an open format to the everyday worker. Soon after I joined the company, I helped co-found the W3C committee that created XML. Months later, I was very pleased to find that Microsoft was at the forefront of the XML standardization movement, working with others in the industry to submit to the W3C what is considered today the core set of the XML standards, such as XSLT (eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformations), Namespaces in XML and schemas, as well as overall Web services standards, such as SOAP, UDDI and the family of Web services specifications.

Ecma International is an industry association that has been around since 1961 and has a great track record for contributing to the worldwide standardization of information technology and telecommunications. The organization has published over 350 Ecma standards, of which over two-thirds have been adopted as international standards. For its part, Microsoft has worked with Ecma in adopting some very important standards, such as ECMAScript, C# and the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI). So we have a long and solid history of participating in standards formation and of working with Ecma.

PressPass: What kind of impact do you think today’s announcement will have on the future of XML?

Paoli: Those of us in the XML community have been dreaming for 20 years of the day when a technology that has helped millions of people create billions of documents would be firmly anchored into a stable standard that gives the power of the content in these documents back to the people who created them. I’m very excited about the potential that standardizing on the Office Open XML file formats holds for giving customers unlimited and perpetual access to their data without being tied to a single solution. This is something that the XML community has been trying to achieve for a long time, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Comments from Microsoft Industry and Government Partners:

“BP welcomes Microsoft’s decision to pursue standardization of the office file formats, and will be participating in the Technical Committee.  As with many complex organizations, ours runs on documents; documents for regulatory reasons, for analytical purposes, for communications, for internal management, for projects, for many things. Digital documents are much like paper documents.  They proliferate and are hard to manage, track, dissect, control, store and ultimately, to use.  This standardization of the Microsoft Office Open XML formats is a promising development that over time will clearly give us more control over our work.”

– Simon J. Orebi Gann, CIO, BP Integrated Supply and Trading

“A key problem we face is accessing the information we have stored in existing Office documents. We need the Office Open XML formats standard which will let us access our internal gold mine of existing materials, as well as those that we will create going forward.”

– Didier Lambert, Vice President, Information Systems, Essilor

“Hitachi Ltd. welcome Microsoft’s activity to offer Microsoft Office ’12’ Open XML format for Ecma standard. This action will evolve the user’s availability to access enormous amount of Office documents and resources on wide variety of information systems.  Moreover, we believe that we will be able to provide additional valued systems to our customers by Microsoft’s new resolution.”

– Kazuhiro Fujisaki, General Manager, Platform Software, Software Division, Hitachi, Ltd.

“Microsoft’s move to offer the document formats for Ecma standardization will benefit not only anyone who works with Office documents, but provide an opportunity for the entire industry to take advantage of the work Microsoft is doing with XML in Office. We are pleased to be part of this effort, and believe that it will enable independent software vendors and developers around the world to capitalize on the power of these file formats for their own solutions.”

– Darren Lee, CEO, NextPage

“We are pleased to be involved in proposing to Ecma the standardization of Microsoft’s open solution for comprehensive document management. In this age of ubiquitous connectivity, we need an open standard that will allow industry, content providers and users to access billions of legacy documents and, going forward, to create countless more documents. As an open format, XML will provide just that capability and bring significant benefits to users.”

– Kazutoshi Eguchi, Director, Toshiba Software Engineering Center

“Microsoft’s move to offer the document formats for Ecma standardization is a considerable contribution to the industry and a laudable step. We are pleased to participate in the Ecma submission process, and believe that by opening up the Office ’12’ formats to the industry it will create a wave of new innovation, by enabling independent  software vendors and developers to capitalize on these file formats for their own solutions.”

– Ole A. Jørgensen, Senior Vice President IS-IT, Statoil ASA

“With the submission of the Office XML file format to a standards body we welcome Microsoft’s contribution to provide authorities and citizens more choice to create, store, and interact with their electronic documents .This is clearly a step in the proper direction, just think about the important aspect of long term document access and preservation.   

To accelerate the adoption of pan-European eGovernment services and the i2010 [Conference] agenda, the Austrian government will put a special focus on security and interoperability in the upcoming Austrian EU presidency beginning of 2006.”

– Christian Rupp, spokesperson of the Federal Platform Digital Austria

“The Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS) welcomes Microsoft’s move to offer the Microsoft Office Open XML Format for an open standardization process in Ecma. This is an important contribution to the industry which will support the interoperability between different Office Systems based on open XML document formats and the competition of solutions.”

– Gerd Schürmann , Director of the Competence Center and Business Unit for eGovernment, Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS, Berlin

“The Government of Latvia welcomes the submission by Microsoft of the Office Open XML formats for standardization. This is important for the development of both e-government and information society and will aid exchange of information within government departments and across European partners.”

– Janis Reirs, Minister for e-Government, Latvia

“This is a further sign of Microsoft’s commitment to interoperability, already demonstrated by its engagement with the e-Government Interoperability Framework (eGIF) and its active support for the e-GIF Accreditation Authority. Widespread adoption of recognised standards for interoperability and re-usability will provide a positive benefit for the public sector – and Microsoft has provided thought leadership to enable those benefits to be captured.”

– Alan Bellinger, e-Government eGIF Accreditation Authority, United Kingdom

“I am extremely satisfied that Microsoft will standardize the Office Open XML schemas. This will catalyze the development of e-Government systems in Bulgaria and simplify data interchange. This will also aid interoperability between the e-Government systems of different countries.”

– Dr. Roumen Trifonov, Director, Coordination Center for Information, Communication and Management Technologies, Council of Ministers, Bulgaria

“As a world leader in enterprise infrastructure software, we have long believed in the value of standards to enable the flow of information across platforms and applications to better enable enterprise productivity.  By creating an open standard based on the Office file formats, ISVs around the world can be assured that their solutions can interoperate with Office now and in the future.”

– Edward Cobb, Vice President, Architecture and Standards, BEA Systems

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