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A new report has warned that urgent work is needed to assess the best way for higher education institutions to upgrade to XML based file formats.

The Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc) has published a report highlighting the need for coordinated action to help the higher education sector make a cost effective switch to XML based office document formats.

Prepared by Walter Ditch, the Technology & Standards Watch report warns higher education institutions (HEIs) that they need to start planning the switch to XML imminently if they are going to take advantage of the increased interoperability and reusability that it offers.

Pressure to move to open file formats has been growing for several years, and according to Ditch, Microsoft has been slow to move away from its proprietary, binary file formats. He says the company's release of Office 2007 means that existing users who upgrade to the new software will essentially be upgrading to a form of XML.

However, in developing its XML based Office suite, Microsoft has chosen not to support the ISO 26300 Open Document Format for Office Applications (ODF) international standard. Instead, it has developed its own specification, Office Open XML (OOXML), which it is claimed provides better backwards compatibility with Microsoft binary file formats.

The OOXML format is currently working its way through the ISO's approval process. This is highly contentious, says Ditch, as if approved it would result in the existence of two ISO standards in the same area. He adds: "The reality is that even if OOXML is not approved by ISO, Jisc and HEIs will still be operating in a 'two standard' world, one a de jure, and the other de facto."

Ditch believes that owing to the long term cost and interoperability implications of switching to XML, work should be commissioned to assess the best approach to upgrading. The work, which could involve Jisc's international partners, should also consider the future use of open source office document packages among students on campus.

The report proposes further work to be carried out into the intellectual property right issues of using the various different formats, and to produce staff guidelines on selecting file formats for document publication.

Ditch advises users of Microsoft Office software to set a time scale for upgrading to the 2007 version. HEIs not planning immediate upgrades should consider installing compatibility packs as an interim measure, allowing the latest Office file types to be opened and saved by existing software installations.

He also suggests that a separate study will need to be carried out for those organisations or departments that are heavily involved with the long term storage of important records, or archiving and preservation.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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