A file format that's worth keeping - forever

Data, like diamonds, are forever: people and organisations may want access to texts - and, in future, spreadsheets and databases - for tens, hundreds, even thousands of years. Software, by contrast, is transitory...

Anyone who has been word processing for a while may well have used Electric Pencil, PC-Write, WordStar, WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, among others. Since data can be extremely expensive or impossible to replace, it's more important to worry about the file formats used for data storage than the software used to create the files.

There is some safety in numbers: popular file formats become de facto standards and widely supported. But in the long term, the safest option is a published, openly agreed (de jure) standard. At the moment, Microsoft's Office file formats are the de facto standards. However, the XML-based ODF (Open Document Format) has been put to the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) as an open standard by the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis), with the support of IBM, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Google, Red Hat and others.

Another of ODF's early backers was the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its IT advisory board decided to make ODF its default file format for office documents from January 2007. This would necessitate changing from Microsoft Office to an alternative suite that supported ODF, such as OpenOffice. Not everyone in the state government was happy about this.

Most software can save files in a variety of formats. Microsoft Word 2003, for example, can save files in .rtf (Rich Text Format), the web's HTML, XML and plain ASCII text, as well as several versions of Microsoft's proprietary .doc format. The obvious solution would be for Microsoft to add ODF, giving customers more choice. Instead, it will submit its Open XML file format - the default in the forthcoming Office 12 - for standardisation.

Open XML will be submitted to ECMA, the European Computer Manufacturers Association, which is a way of fast-tracking it to an ISO standard. Microsoft's move is supported by companies including Apple Computer, Intel, BP and the British Library. To exploit the new formats, users will not have to buy Office 12 or spend more money. Microsoft will provide free add-ons that work with Office 2000 onwards.

Developers will also be able to use the Open XML format for free, and that includes "developers who work only with open source licensing", according to Jean Paoli, Microsoft's XML architect and a co-creator of the XML 1.0 standard.

In other words, while Microsoft will not support ODF, rival software suppliers can support Open XML to provide better compatibility with Office. Microsoft has moved a long way with Open XML. It is an evolutionary step forward, based on preserving the billions of Office documents already in existence. But it will not satisfy those who wanted Microsoft to move towards ODF.

It's not clear which way Massachusetts will go. However, Thomas Trimarco, the secretary of administration and finance, has said: "The Commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft's progress in creating an open document format. If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats." This looks like a reversal of statements made by his predecessor, Eric Kriss, who championed open source.

But even if Microsoft holds Massachusetts, it will face the same battle in other countries and companies. Billions of dollars worth of Microsoft's business is at risk. Now it's less about winning and more about minimising the losses.

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