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Microsoft is reluctantly lending its name to a project for interoperability between Office 2007 and desktop productivity software using a non-Microsoft supported file format.

The Open XML Translator Project will allow desktop productivity applications saved using the industry backed Open Document Format (ODF), which Microsoft has stubbornly opposed, to talk to files using Microsoft's own Open XML File Format. The first goal is for users of the delayed Word 2007 to be able to open and save ODF documents in Word.

Open XML Translator Project, developed under BSD, has been posted to SourceForge. A complete version of the Word translator tool is expected by the end of 2006 with add-ins for Excel and PowerPoint due in 2007. A free compatibility pack will provide interoperability with older versions of Office.

Microsoft, who is working with three partners in France, Germany and India, is succumbing to pressure from government customers who are adopting ODF as a way to ensure millions of documents are stored in an open, industry-backed document format to ensure future accessibility.

ODF was ratified as a standard by the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in April 2005 and has been supported in desktop productivity suites from IBM, Sun Microsystems, OpenOffice.org and Novell.

As ever, though, Microsoft preferred not to join the industry and instead promoted its own Office XML File Format, claiming its file format offered superior performance. Microsoft also assembled a coalition of the willing to push for ratification of the Office XML File Format by standard group the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA). Members of the coalition include Apple, Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Intel, and Toshiba.

Microsoft went on to accuse IBM and Sun of promoting a standards conflict in backing ODF to mask the fact that their products lag Microsoft Office in terms of functionality.

Significantly, IBM and Sun joined 35 other organisations earlier this year in creating the Open Document Format Alliance to educate potential users, notably in government, about ODF.

The alliance was formed following the Commonwealth of Massachusetts debacle, which saw Massachusetts mandate that all state IT departments dump proprietary document file formats for standards-based offerings by 2007. In a decision that caused concern among other government users, Massachusetts subsequently reversed its decision amid much politics.

It seems, though, Microsoft has finally been called to account by the kinds of government users targeted by the Open Document Format Alliance.

In a statement, Microsoft said while it was acting in response to requests from this important user group it believes ODF remains the weaker offering. According to Microsoft, ODF meets "very different customer requirements", "focuses on more limited requirements" and is used only to "fill key gaps such as spreadsheet formulas, macro support and support for accessibility options".

And, buried in Microsoft's announcement, was a last, parting attempt, to warn foolhardy customers away from ODF with its own offering. "Certain compromises and customer disclosures will be a necessary part of translating between the two formats," Microsoft said. ®

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