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Microsoft has crept closer to interoperability between Office documents and those from competing productivity suites by way of XML.

The company will adopt "industry standard" XML as the file format for popular applications like Word in the next major release of Office, codenamed Office 12 and expected in 2006. The implementation is called Microsoft Office XML Open Format.

Office XML Open Format is also being published by Microsoft on a royalty-free basis to the industry, potentially opening the format to third parties to develop interoperability with Office.

Office XML Open Format is Microsoft's latest step in a move to XML that has opened up Office, but, according to skeptics, has failed to provide complete interoperability with rival suites, like Sun Microsystems' StarOffice.

Recent editions of Office have introduced SpreadsheetML, to use XML with the Excel file format, and WordprocessingML, to use XML with the Word file format. XML has also been introduced for interoperability with back-office servers.

In November 2003 Microsoft announced it was releasing the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas, consisting of WordprocessingML and SpreadsheetML among other formats, on a royalty-free basis. The move potentially gave Linux, Unix and Windows developers access to these Office 2003 XML schemes.

On Thursday Microsoft appeared to go further than before, saying Office XML Open Format introduced "significantly enhanced" XML file formats for Word, Excel, and the first XML file format for PowerPoint. Microsoft said the formats are "completely based on XML" and use "industry standard" ZIP compression technology.

The company cited "customer demand" for its decision to change, however the move is more than likely designed to improve Office's interoperability between desktop and server components of Microsoft's "Office System" like SharePoint Server, and between Microsoft's desktop and server products like Exchange.

Publishing the formats is also likely to make it easier for ISVs to build add-ins to Office, expanding the ecosystems of Office products and enriching the suite's functionality.

Two spin-off benefits of the new formats is that files will become up to 75 per cent smaller compared to files in Office 2003, and documents will by default not execute embedded code like macros in Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents, potentially containing viruses. ®

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