Microsoft Office 12 Pushes XML Technology

Microsoft yesterday announced that it is adopting industry-standard Extensible Markup Language (XML) technology for the default file formats in the next version of Microsoft Office editions, currently code-named “Office 12.”

The new file formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML Formats, will become the defaults for the “Office 12” versions of Microsoft Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which are expected to be released in the second half of 2006.

Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of Office at Microsoft, said the XML formats have the potential to make a hugely positive impact on workers’ effectiveness and productivity without requiring a minute of additional training.

“Customers have asked us for improved file and data management; improved interoperability; and open, royalty-free, published file format specifications — without sacrificing backward compatibility,” Sinofsky said. “We’re confident that by adopting XML-based default file formats, we are delivering the tools that will help IT professionals address these challenges, while enabling developers to integrate Office even further into their customized solutions.”

Building on XML Momentum

Customers and the technology industry at large have moved rapidly to adopt XML as a core mechanism for structured data interchange. According to Microsoft research, more than 1 million developers are currently developing solutions using Office 2003, and more than one-third of them are using XML in their solutions.

Moreover, Gartner estimates that the use of XML-enabled e-forms will at least double through next year and that 40 percent of knowledge workers will use XML-aware content-creation tools by 2007. Forrester Research predicts that XML will become one of the dominant document formats for archiving data by 2008.

Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld that just sprinkling XML on software doesn’t make it fly. “What’s important about Office 12 is not that it’s XML but that it’s open,” he said. “So for the first time developers outside Microsoft will be able to easily get at stuff inside Office documents.”

Addressing Compatibility Issues

Analysts said the sticking point with customers is going to be compatibility issues. Microsoft will have to demonstrate early and often that older versions are compatible with Office 12.

“Psychologically there have been some ugly problems in the past with Office format changes,” Helm said. “Between Office 97 and Office 95 there was a change in binary formats. The two were not compatible with each other initially and it created immense problems, especially in large companies where not everybody could go to the new version at the same time.”

Microsoft said compatibility with previous versions of Microsoft Office will help ensure that the new formats can be adopted readily. Compatibility goes as far back as Office 2000. Documents created with the current binary file formats in Office also will be fully compatible with Office 12 applications.

Overall, Helm said this is a good move for Microsoft. But he also said he sympathizes with large corporations who may be somewhat timid. “Everyone is going to benefit from this if Microsoft gets it right,” he said. “But people have a reason to be skeptical.”

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