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ODF's doomed mission to break into Microsoft Office

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Could Microsoft's Office team learn a thing or two from those building Internet Explorer and Windows? Depends on what's at stake - and to what extent they're forced to act.

This week, Microsoft rolled out the Windows browser ballot screen it agreed to during antitrust settlement talks with European regulators and competitors. The ballot screen is designed to let Windows 7 customers pick the browser they want, rather than simply giving them Microsoft's IE out of the box with Microsoft's operating system.

Meanwhile, the Office 2010 team is offering a ballot window of its own in the Office 2010 Release Candidate. This screen lets you decide whether you want to save your documents using the Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) formats or the more generally accepted XML-based Open Document Format (ODF).

But the Office screen has rankled some ODF and open-source supporters. They don't like the wording on the ballot or the positioning of the options. OOXML is on top, as the first option. And the ODF option says: "Many features of Microsoft Office are supported by ODF but some content or editability may be lost on save."

The wording may well be an accurate depiction of the true state of affairs in Office, given Microsoft said last year it would give minimal play to ODF in its suite. Open sourcers have read it as a warning against using ODF, which hasn't gone down well. You can see the screen here.

Free-Software-Foundation president Richard Stallman has told Neowin that the Office ballot screen is designed to actually deter potential users from using ODF. Stallman concludes Microsoft is simply going through a pretense - to be able to say it offers ODF support.

ODF managing director Marino Marcich pointed to a bigger issue, saying a ballot screen is meaningful only if the ODF implementation is "complete, current, and interoperable with other ODF applications."

Marcich has a point. Anything else would be like Windows only partly working with Safari 4, Chrome, Firefox 3, or Opera 10.

These browsers do work on Windows, a fact that's reflected in the wording in the new Windows browser ballot screen used to describe each browser. The wording is brief, it's egalitarian, and it makes no negative judgments. On the contrary, it veers into up-sell territory.

We can only speculate about why Microsoft has stumbled on Office.

Maybe Microsoft was too honest for its own good in pointing out to users the limitations of ODF in Office. Or maybe it just doesn't want you to use ODF.

It's probably a case of the latter given the minimal mention ODF garnered in Microsoft's public undertaking on interoperability in Office last year. That commitment came after it lost a case, originally brought by Sun Microsystems, claiming Microsoft had hurt the competition by withholding Windows client protocols

All things being unequal

It took the might of an regulatory probe to force Microsoft's hand on the IE browser ballot in Windows: first to get the screen and then to have the ballot screen shaped to the linking of competitors Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software. Yet the Office ballot screen seems to have come up short despite being the result of similar regulatory and legal pressures.

Given Microsoft's underlying ethos is to optimize its runtimes - Windows, Office, SharePoint, Silverlight, Internet Explorer and so on - for the Windows "experience" in order to convince people to pick its products, an equal footing for ODF in Office is unlikely (either at a technical level or in the theatrical billing of the Office ballot screen). OOXML is an extension of this. It's an Office-rich XML-based format designed to deliver a Microsoft-centric productivity experience straddling Office, SharePoint, and other Microsoft software.

Would it take fresh regulatory pressure on Microsoft this time? Possibly. Microsoft is within its rights to support ODF as much - or a little - as it wants in Office. And so far, it has proved it's wiling to not just do the least possible, but come up with its own alternative - an option proponents of ODF probably least expected and an option that has left them irked. ®

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