PDF In-Depth

Editorial: Microsoft's open Office plan...

November 30, 2005

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Perhaps it was bound to happen sooner or later, but Microsoft is now looking to make Microsoft Office document formats, known as Office Open XML, an international standard. When the Redmond giant announced native PDF support in the next version of Office, Office "12", some saw it as a response to a decision by the government of Massachusetts to support a switch to the open document formats. Namely, that could include PDF and the fully OpenDocument-compliant OpenOffice.org format. Given the amount of work involved -- Microsoft brewed its own PDF creation code -- it's drawing an awfully long bow to say that the state of Massachusetts' decision led to the feature's development. Microsoft employees including blogger Brian Jones have cited that factors such as the 30,000 weekly searches for PDF support on the OfficeOnline website made the addition a "pretty easy decision." That said, I think it's fair to say that the timing of the announcement by Microsoft was more than simple co-incidence.

Supporting PDF gives Microsoft a way in to the long-term archival arena, and following Adobe's suit by standardizing the Office Open XML proprietary-yet-published document specifications would mean that it used recognized standard formats for both editable documents (Office Open XML) and final form documents (PDF files) -- the darlings of the long-term archival set. Adobe's model has certainly worked wonders for its PDF format, and although some pundits fear that Microsoft could pull the rug out from under users by closing the format again in the future, it's a calculated risk that millions of PDF users have learned to live with over the last decade-and-a-half or so.

Governments around the world have moved towards open source solutions, fighting employee inertia all the way. A major reason for this shift is purportedly altruism -- relying on a proprietary format to stay available and compatible for the long haul takes a lot of faith. What good is a document archive if its contents can't be accessed down the track? Until now, that is exactly what has been asked by Microsoft with its proprietary Office document formats.

Another impediment to Microsoft's ambitions is that editable, XML-based documents already have an accepted -- albeit relatively young -- standard in the OpenDocument Format (ODF). Too many official standards would effectively negate the benefits of standardization, so Ecma International, the European standards body charged with evaluating Microsoft's case, will need to give the application careful consideration.

The OpenDocument or OpenDoc standard is overseen by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), and was submitted to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in late September. If its application with Ecma is successful, Microsoft plans to follow up by applying for ISO accreditation as well.

While Office soundly beats OpenOffice in terms of features and accessibility support, the other points of comparison between the two just bring us back to the old open source versus proprietary technology debate. Due to the many column inches devoted to that larger debate elsewhere, I won't delve too deeply into it here.

Do I think that Microsoft's proposal will be accepted? Probably, and here are my main reasons:

  1. Inertia. Yup, that old chestnut. I firmly believe that inertia is the single strongest motivating force on Earth. Perhaps it's not so much a force as a Newtonian law of motion, but you get my point. Users familiar with Microsoft Office will be keen to keep using it, and system administrators will be keen to avoid overhauling entrenched Microsoft Office systems if they can find a good reason (e.g. acceptance as a formal standard).
  2. Big business support. Microsoft's Ecma submission was co-sponsored by Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Essilor, Intel Corporation, NextPage Inc., Statoil ASA, Toshiba and Apple. Yes, Apple. Those are some heavy-hitters, and Office Open XML's published schemas will mean that anyone can build software to create or manipulate documents in that format. Adobe has experienced this phenomenon with 3rd party vendors developing PDF viewers and creation utilities which compete directly with Adobe's flagship Acrobat product.
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