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Just when you thought it wasn't possible to create any more versions of Microsoft Office, Redmond has raised the prospect of more of even more flavors. Only not from Microsoft.

Microsoft has said it expects its use of XML to describe Office file formats, namely the Office XML File Format, will lead others to build implementations of the suite. (And we thought Standard, Professional, Home and Student and Professional Plus were plenty.)

Microsoft is pushing for the ratification of the Office XML File Format through the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA), with support from the likes of Apple Computer, the British Library, Intel and Toshiba.

Microsoft has championed the Office XML File Format in opposition to OpenDocument Format (ODF), which has the backing of Adobe Systems, Apple (again), IBM, Nokia, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat, and which has been ratified by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

Members of a panel discussing the difference between open standards and open source software here at this week's Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) expressed strong doubt about whether ratification of Office XML File Format as a standard would challenge Microsoft's market dominance.

Panel member Stephen Walli, an ex-Microsoft business development manager turned vice president of open source development strategy for consultant and systems integrator Optaros, challenged the real value of Office XML File Format.

Walli said it was unlikely the standards would produce independent alternatives to Microsoft. "A measure of how successful a standard becomes is how many implementations there are... a standard of one is problematic," Walli said.

Precedent is certainly on Walli's side. ECMA ratified Microsoft's Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) and C# programming language several years ago, but since then just one implementation - the open source Project Mono - has emerged.

Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source, contrasted this with the fact that "a couple of commercial implementations" already exist that use ODF. ODF is employed in OpenOffice and Sun's StarOffice, while IBM has plans to use ODF in its Workplace Managed Client 2.6 thin client productivity bundle.

However, Jason Matusow, Microsoft's director of corporate standards, shot back calling it "presumptive" to conclude Office XML File Format's wouldn't lead to independent implementations. "There will be competing implementations," he said, adding the pace of development would exceed expectations.

Matusow said the ECMA standards process is designed to promote growth in competition. "This is not a Microsoft dominated piece [of standards work]. Can multiple implementations come from it? The answer is 'yes'."

According to Matusow, IBM's massive Global Services business has been talking to Microsoft about how it can build a services business around Office XML File Format.®

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