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Microsoft Office is facing an organized challenge from an alliance of government bodies and IT vendors that are promoting OpenDocument Format (ODF).

Thirty-five organizations including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Oracle and Novell, plus international government representatives, are to start the Open Document Format Alliance, a group that will promote education and learning around ODF.

The ODF Alliance will operate through the Software Information Industry Association (SIIA), and represents a second attempt to push the XML-based ODF as an alternative to a set of XML file formats in Microsoft Office.

Sun, IBM and others are also pushing for the technical advancement of ODF through a committee of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

The ODF Alliance has been founded in the wake of last year's debacle around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' declaration that all state IT departments dump proprietary document file formats by 2007 and adopt standards.

Massachusetts' decision, reversed amid considerable acrimony and politicking, would have seen the state dump Microsoft Office for productivity suites using ODF. That would have allowed in IBM, Sun and others who support ODF.

IBM vice president for standards and open source Bob Sutor told The Register the alliance will provide guidance and a forum for people interested in adopting ODF. "We are there to eliminate the friction in terms of the understanding of ODF," he said.

As governments make more documents available in digital form, Sutor said they need to be sure the file formats they use are really open standards. ODF has been ratified by OASIS, while Microsoft's own XML standards, the Office XML File Format, are still in pre-standards mode and are being pushed by Microsoft and a handful of companies through the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA).

Microsoft believes the ECMA process will lead to multiple implementations of its file formats.

"We are at a point around document formats that people will have to make some hard choices. Just sticking with the status quo won't be the right thing to do," Sutor said.

ODF Alliance chief open source officer Simon Phipps said the alliance would work through the SIIA - incidentally no friend of Microsoft. "We want to make clear what the benefits of using ODF are for government users who have a strong concern the documents they are creating remain a part of their history and heritage, rather than being lost in a digital Alzheimer's as document formats change," he said.

Conspicuous by its absence from the ODF Alliance is Microsoft. Both Sutor and Phipps said the software giant is welcome to join, with Phipps noting that representatives from Microsoft have sat in on the OASIS committee. Phipps added he'd hate to see "a great company like Microsoft left behind" as governments and industry adopt ODF. ®

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