Office 12, the next major version of Microsoft Office, has reached a key milestone with the release of a beta version of the software. But as users and developers start testing this early version, Microsoft has been facing criticism of the new file format Office 12 will use.
A key part of Office 12 is built-in support for data exchange format XML and a new XML-based document format called Open XML. Office 12, which will be launched towards the end of 2006, will save documents by default in the Open XML format.
Jean Paoli, Microsoft's senior director of XML architecture, said, "This vision was developed in response to the fact that companies are often forced to adopt inefficient and duplicative business processes because business-critical information frequently ends up locked inside data storage systems, such as a database that employees do not know how to access, or business productivity documents, such as a long-forgotten spreadsheet stored on an employee's PC."
Microsoft aims to make the Open XML format an industry standard. It has gained the support of Intel and Apple Computer, plus users such as BP and the British Library. An ECMA standard should mean that Office documents will be more interoperable with third-party software and legacy applications.
The company is expected to get Open XML recognised by standards body ECMA, then register the format with the International Organisation for Standardisation.
However, there has been an outcry in the open source community as Microsoft prepares to submit its file format to ECMA. It is facing criticism from groups such as the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Consortium, as well as backers of rival XML-based file format Open Document Format (ODF), which include IBM, Sun, Novell, Adobe and Google.
Criticism centres on the fact that the Office 12 Open XML file format would be controlled by a single commercial entity. One analyst said that, based on Microsoft's previous ECMA standardisation efforts, it is not certain that Microsoft would relinquish control of the Office formats to other companies, which could mean that Office documents may not become as interoperable as Microsoft suggests.
The Free Software Foundation has been particularly critical of Microsoft over its involvement in a US government adoption of Office document standards, which many are viewing as a test case.
The user - the commonwealth of Massachusetts - decided to adopt ODF largely because it was developed by a multiparty standards organisation. However, at a government hearing Microsoft argued strongly against the organisation adopting ODF, according to the Free Software Foundation.
As Microsoft attempts to establish Open XML as a standard document format, it is facing competition from the likes of the ODF standard and Adobe's Portable Document Format.
Office 12 will offer native support for Adobe's PDF, but only third-party support for ODF, potentially complicating matters for IT managers.