Microsoft was expected to announce Tuesday that it would seek approval to make the software formats behind its Office suite of applications an "open standard" that it would license free to competitors, partners and developers.
As a set of application principles endorsed by international standards-setting groups, the so-called Office Open XML format could be used by others to make applications and tools to work with Microsoft's popular office document programs, company executives said Monday.
While Microsoft Office is the biggest-selling package of so-called office suite software - including word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software - many people complain that they are unable to customize the software for their special business needs. Or, they say, they need to exchange documents with other word-processing or spreadsheet applications that cannot translate Office documents.
Microsoft said it was putting the format through a "fast track" process that may result in approval next year by the International Organization for Standardization, known as ISO, well in advance of the arrival of its next version of Office at the end of 2006. The company finished the first full trial version of Office 12 this month.
Some analysts said the move was an attempt to pacify some parts of the customer base for Microsoft Office, which is the company's biggest source of revenue after its Windows operating system software. Some buyers, especially governments, have considered alternatives like Sun Microsystem's StarOffice programs.
The state of Massachusetts, for instance, this autumn decided to use a rival document format supported by Sun and International Business Machines called OpenDocument, although the decision is not final and has been embroiled in political controversy.
In some cases, the concern of those weighing alternatives is the amount of power Microsoft holds over the most common document formats - and over which computers and programs can open them and show their contents.
If the so-called Office Open XML format becomes an endorsed standard, "customers will have a choice" between OpenDocument and Open XML, said Alan Yates, Microsoft general manager of Office. Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International, said some pressure had been brought to bear on the company by members of the European Union and by the European Commission itself over the past several years to be more accommodating of open standards. "They asked us to do more work on our formats, and we've done that," he said.
The submission to the ISO begins with an application to Ecma International, the Geneva-based computer manufacturer standards group. Ecma will speed up the submission to ISO, perhaps as soon as its Dec. 8 meeting, Courtois said. The application is being supported by several Microsoft partners and customers, including Apple Computer, Intel, Toshiba, Barclays Bank and the British Library.
If approved by the ISO, the standard would make documents created under previous Microsoft Office versions, at least back to Office 2000, work equally well with applications that use the Open XML standard. Besides generating new support from software developers, Microsoft hopes to get the backing of those in the business of saving documents - thus the interest of the British Library.
"It is not too much to say that billions of documents will get a new lease on life," Courtois said about the ability of Open Office XML to work with Microsoft software from several years ago. The company also is working on making Office 97, which was made in a much different way than today's programs, compatible with the format.
Open standards are publicly available software or hardware specifications that provide a common method of achieving a particular goal, like HTML for the creation of Web pages. XML, or extensible markup language, is the standard that Microsoft bases Office documents on, and would be freely available to increase compatibility and increase competition.
Xbox 360 may sell out
U.S. gamers will be lining up Tuesday to be among the first to buy Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming system, but many of the faithful are likely to go home empty-handed, The Associated Press reported from Seattle.
Many leading U.S. retailers said they planned to have consoles available at all their stores Tuesday, but some locations could sell out quickly. Microsoft has said it plans to sell three million of the new $400 Xbox 360 consoles worldwide within 90 days of its introduction.