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XML file formats in Office 12

Microsoft recently unveiled XML-based Office 12 - but just how "open" will the file format be?

Microsoft's annual Tech-Ed conference is the place where the company traditionally trots out new technologies and announces new releases and platforms. At Tech-Ed 2005, which was held in Orlando from June 6 through 10 this year, was the news that the next version of Microsoft Office, currently code-named "Office 12," would use XML-based file formats as defaults for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other components. This was presaged by a June 1 Microsoft Press release titled "Microsoft Makes XML the File Format for the Next Version of Microsoft Office." But what might this really mean?

Conversations with users at Tech-Ed on this topic stressed XML's regular structure, which makes it easy for software to parse and consume, and the ability to filter documents based on metadata rather than raw content. Other reactions, uniformly positive, mentioned reduced file sizes for XML-based documents and reduced storage requirements as a consequence. Other reactions have noted that Microsoft has enabled other productivity suites, such as Star Office and Open Office (both of which also use XML-based formats), to interoperate more effectively with MS Office - and thus to compete more effectively against it. But experts stress that it's still necessary for companies and organizations to find legitimate business needs to migrate to Office 12, since many remain happy with Office 2003 or Office 2000.

Microsoft appears to be grabbing this bull by the horns, however, and has named this collection of default XML formats "Microsoft Office XML Open Format." In fact, Microsoft senior vice president Steven Sinofsky stresses the notion that "XML enables companies to capture information so it can be repurposed and re-used however and whenever the organization needs to use it, regardless of platform" and goes on to stress that the new XML formats will enable customers to "improve data flow throughout their organizations" and "build customized business process and productivity solutions that help workers make a greater impact on their business."

In the face of such statements, I can only conclude that Microsoft believes it can offer best-of-breed tools to work with Office to make such applications as easy to design and build as possible. This is very much an extension of the already formidable (but hitherto proprietary and MS-focused) arsenal of XML tools that Microsoft offers in existing and beta .NET development environments, with Application Programming Interfaces to match. Sinofsky more or less proves my point when, later in the interview, he says, "Think of a customer-service representative who now can respond to a customer issue using standard document components stored on a server, rather than having to retype an entire document."

Then, too, the issue of familiarity is also brought to bear: "XML can unlock information currently stored in back-end systems, which can then be processed and re-purposed on the desktop in the Office applications with which people are already very familiar." He then explains that this kind of approach would enable executives to perform on-demand or real-time performance analyses of their companies based on real-time updates from financial sales and inventory status (all presumably hooked in through XML uptake from Office documents or database contents).

Because XML has been used for a variety of formats in earlier Office implementations, what's new with Office 12 is what Sinofsky calls "consistent, application-specific XML markup" that is completely XML-based, plus ZIP compression technology to reduce file sizes. He then claims that this switch enables improved file and data management, data recovery, and better "interoperability with line-of-business systems beyond what's possible with Office 2003 binary files." Improved integration with databases, including SQL Server as well as other engines (most current releases of which also offer XML-based import, export, and real-time access) isn't singled out in the discussion, but is surely a key ingredient.

Microsoft claims to offer its Office XML open formats as open, available standards that may be used royalty-free. This puts them in the same league as the Open Office open document format for Office applications (Open Document) v1.0 specifications available from OASIS. But while there is plenty of hoopla about Microsoft's decision already evident - including an interesting open letter from XML luminary and XML architecture director at Microsoft, Jean Paoli, an Office 12 "buzz site," an ongoing blog dedicated to the new file format from Brian Jones, director of the Office 12 development team, and even a "Microsoft Office open XML formats overview" document - the actual formats of the specifications are not yet publicly available.

Though I can understand how and why the process is proceeding as it is, I'm a little disappointed that Microsoft is apparently stopping a bit short of embracing the full meaning of the term "open" in the name for the new formats. Though I'm sure they're consulting with key customers on what's in the formats and how they work, it would be nice to see some drafts beforehand and get the opportunity to comment before being presented with a fait accompli. As it is, we'll all just have to wait and see what's up when Microsoft sees it fit to publish its new XML format specifications. At that time, I'll be sure to comment further on what kinds of blessings and curses may emerge as a result.

About the author
Ed Tittel is a full-time writer and trainer whose interests include XML and development topics, along with IT Certification and information security topics. E-mail Ed with comments, questions, or suggested topics or tools for review.

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