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EC takes own sweet time backing Microsoft ODF move

Interoperable? We'll be the judge of that

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The European Commission is investigating Microsoft’s interoperability pledge that it will support OpenDocument Format (ODF) in Office 2007 service pack two (SP2).

Regulators at the anti-trust arm of the EC said in a statement today that it welcomed “any step that Microsoft took towards genuine interoperability, more consumer choice and less vendor lock-in”.

Yesterday in its latest attempt to silence critics, Microsoft proclaimed that Office 2007 SP2 – which isn’t expected to land until around the first half of next year – will support rival file format ODF used by open source fanciers such as IBM and Sun Microsystems.

The commission said it would investigate whether that announcement really did mean "better interoperability", allowing customers "to process and exchange their documents with the software product of their choice".

Microsoft’s meat and potatoes offering will provide format support via its office suites’ “save” menu for ODF 1.1, Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) 1.5 and XML Paper Specification (XPS). In addition it will cough up new APIs that should allow developers, working within Office, to make file formats more compatible.

But the software giant’s decision to finally embrace ODF has been blasted by sceptics who view Microsoft’s latest move as a well-timed PR stunt, in its effort to convince the EC that it has become a more caring and sharing member of the developer community at large.

Standards Norway deputy managing director Ivar Jachwitz reckoned Microsoft’s commitment to ODF could not be proven until Office 2007 SP2 reaches the firm’s considerable customer base.

“We have heard a lot of promises from Microsoft, but as of yet, we are hoping for results,” he said.

ODF Alliance director Marino Marcich, managing director yesterday agreed with that sentiment. He said: "The proof will be whether and when Microsoft's promised support for ODF is on par with its support for its own format. Governments will be looking for actual results, not promises in press releases."

Since January the commission has been probing alleged competition law violations by the software multinational. Microsoft has been lambasted by many who claim that the firm has abused its dominant market position.

The EC has been looking at Microsoft's approach to interoperability across a number of areas. As part of this ongoing probe the commission is scrutinising the company's contentious file format Office Open XML (OOXML), on the grounds that the specification doesn't work with those of competitors.

Microsoft in March this year secured enough votes to see OOXML approved as an international standard, despite a wide range of complaints against it.

The company’s file format (29500) was handed over to the standards bodies and renamed Open XML to signify it was no longer exclusively a Redmond specification, which followed ratification of the spec by the International Standardisation Organisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission.

Microsoft’s interoperability and standards developer Jason Matusow hit back at critics of the firm’s newly-proclaimed openness. He said in a post on his blog yesterday:

There is a continuum of thought related to interoperability reaching back many years based on the growth of Microsoft’s enterprise business, all of which has been affected by the regulatory activity in the U.S. and Europe.

This is overlaying the real-world issues customers face as the world continues to progress toward network ubiquity and the desire to exchange an ever-increasing range of data electronically.

But one glaring fact remains buried underneath Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to be recast as a cuddly, friendly giant – Office support for OXML is perhaps years away. ®

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