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XML From Office? Microsoft's Open Promise

When Microsoft announced in June that the default file formats in the next-generation Office suite would be based on XML, there was reason to both hope and question whether open computing was headed for a major victory.

When Microsoft announced in June that the default file formats in the next-generation Office suite would be based on XML, there was reason to both hope and question whether open computing was headed for a major victory. If Office 12, slated for release next year, starts churning out documents that are truly interoperable with any back-end system via standard XML, a floodgate of possibilities will open.

"Microsoft Office is behind more than 80 percent of the electronic documents that exist in the world," says MarkLogic chief technologist Paul Pedersen. "If it commits to a stable, open schema, there will be an explosion of value-added applications."

Simple Office templates could serve as front-end interfaces for complex enterprise applications and line-of-business systems, so users could create invoices or purchase requisitions without training on complex systems. Once a name or account number is typed in, the template could automatically extract data available from back-end systems to fill the missing fields. Complex, formulaic reports or forecasts could be automated with templates that would extract data on schedule or whenever it's refreshed and then recalculate the numbers — just a few possibilities Microsoft outlined as part of its Office Open XML announcement (www.microsoft.com/office/preview).

Still, some wonder if the greatest potential will be reserved for Microsoft tools and environments. "Time and again, Microsoft press releases going back to Office 2000 have crowed about how version X would write or read XML," says Kurt Cagle, senior architect at software developer Mercurial Communications, author of The XML Developer's Handbook (Sybex, 2000) and publisher of www.understandingxml.com. "The content was either unobtainable without Microsoft tools, included 'extensions' that rendered it inoperable on most XML parsers or was so complex, it drove stylesheet developers crazy."

Microsoft counters that Office 2003 XML reference schemas are already available to everyone through a royalty-free license. "Microsoft publishes the specs for the reference schemas to ensure anyone can build products and solutions that exchange data freely with documents using the formats," responds Office program manager Brian Jones. He adds that Office uses an MSXML parser that "conforms extremely well to the XML standard," although his comments stop short of claiming broad compatibility with third-party parsers, tools used to analyze text-based input and break it into its constituent parts.

As for schema stability, Jones says that as new features get added to Office, "the schemas will change in very well-defined ways. There's an extensibility mechanism built into the schemas that will be fully documented. As long as an application supports that simple mechanism, there will be no issues in dealing with XML files generated in future versions of Office."

Cagle says he's hopeful Microsoft's new formats will be as open as the name suggests. "If Microsoft actually achieves this target, [you'll be able] to use Word documents within XML-oriented content management products that aren't tied to Windows implementations."

Mainstream press coverage of the Office Open XML announcement focused largely on how users will be able to salvage .doc, .xsl and .ppt files and keep creating them for legacy apps. Microsoft will provide a utility to upgrade Office 2000/XP/2003 files, and Office 12 will let you "save as" to the old binary formats.

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