Clearly the Press Announcement today from Microsoft will bring about another wave of discourse on the future of document formats. The really short version of this announcement is that Office is going to support ODF, PDF, and XPS in the product directly and Microsoft engineers are going to join the OASIS working group on ODF, participate in the future of PDF in AIIM, stay active in the Ecma working group for XPS, and of course, remain active in JTC 1 SC34 where Open XML (and hopefully ODF) will be maintained over time. Also, when released, Office 14 will update the already substantial support for IS29500 in Office 2007.
While this is a big deal announcement for the Office product team (check out Doug Mahugh's blog), my take on it is predictably focused on the longer-term interoperability factors. Each aspect of the actions being taken by Microsoft fit into a very logical progression.
For years, I have vocally disagreed with the notion of a single document format as being the answer – the oft quoted Highlander line, “there can be only one.” My reason for this is very simple – document formats are representative of the innovation in the applications that use them. If you mandate a single document format – or even worse, a single version of a document format – you are effectively saying that you want to constrain application innovation to the limitations of a given format. I think this is bad news for consumers and producers of technology alike.
There is a continuum of thought related to interoperability reaching back many years based on the growth of Microsoft’s enterprise business, all of which has been affected by the regulatory activity in the U.S. and Europe. This is overlaying the real-world issues customers face as the world continues to progress toward network ubiquity and the desire to exchange an ever-increasing range of data electronically. In particular, governments are pressing hard to realize eGOV scenarios where they are seeking to effectively connect just about every type of information processing technology ever created. Thus, we end up in an ongoing conversation about interoperability.
There are some points to keep in mind when considering the news about the expanded set of document formats in Office.
The next 12 to 24 months are going to be extremely telling in the world of document formats. The myopia around the standardization process of Open XML will fade as software producers continue to invest their development budgets in the creation of solutions. The specification itself is only the start; it is the implementations, and the competition in the marketplace of broader solutions that will continue to matter more. In my opinion, the continued interest in innovation presented by those solutions will speak much louder than the formats themselves.