As previously announced, and as indicated by the lower frequency in blogcasting here, everyone at MacBU is exceedingly busy completing Office 2008, which is on track for release later this year. This work is our primary focus, and is the largest undertaking in our ten year history as an independent team.  We are developing the product for versions beyond 2008 with broad investment in native Mac OS X architecture as well as adoption of a new, next generation document format: Office Open XML.

We've made great progress, and as previously promised we're releasing some of this new functionality in a form that you can start using right away:  Beta release #1 of the Microsoft Office Open XML File Format Converter for Mac is now available for download.

This is a stand-alone Macintosh application that converts .docx documents - that is, documents saved by Word 2007 for Windows in the Office Open XML file format - into rich text format (RTF) documents so that they can be automatically opened in either Word 2004 or Word v.X for Mac OS X.

With this free converter we passionately want to get you up and reading the new documents you are receiving.  We do not, however, want to see you inadvertently mess up any critical documents you are working with. For that reason, only one-way (read only) conversion is supported in this beta. When sending documents back to colleagues and contacts, we recommend saving to the default .doc format from Mac Word (listed as "Word document" in the save dialog). Similarly, we continue to recommend that you advise friends and colleagues who use Office 2007 and collaborate regularly with Mac users to save their documents as a "Word/Excel/PowerPoint 97-2003 Document" (.doc, .xls, .ppt) to ensure that the files can be robustly shared across platforms while waiting for final availability of Office 2008 for Mac.

Personally, I'm getting plenty of opportunities to use this new converter right out of the gate. Office 2007 for Windows is pretty widely deployed across the numerous PC desktops we have here internally at Microsoft. So far the converter is doing great, but then in most cases I tend to only need to read and review the documents rather than co-edit them (product plans, service agreements, draft letters, staff communications and the like). For active collaboration on critical or complex documents - e.g. where getting the formatting, tables etc. correct is essential - you'll want to continue to work with the older (.doc) format from the start.

Why a stand-alone converter application? We chose this route because it supports both Office 2004 and Office v.X for Mac users, while providing some bonus functionality such as batch conversion, and also keeping the team focused on Office 2008 by avoiding major test efforts around invasive changes to our shipping Office 2004 product. The user interface for the converter actually began life as an internal test tool (where you can imagine the batch processing comes in handy) - it was so slick it quickly became obvious that it was a great solution for the converter. You can drag and drop files onto the converter icon or application of course, but can also simply double-click .docx files to invoke it. The first thing I did is turn on this preference to immediately open a newly converted document in Word, so that I can skip the step of finding the new RTF document and dragging it to Word.

Why Rich Text Format? RTF (once called the "interchange format") is simply a highly convenient intermediate format for the beta converter to use; I'll let one of our Word experts (like Rick) expand on the technical reasons why this is the case if there's interest.

We plan to release a final integrated converter for Office 2004, which will appear as an update that allows you to simply open and save the new file formats as if they'd always been there (though, some of the newer functionality expressed in the formats will naturally only be available in Office 2008). We are on track to deliver this final integrated converter for Office 2004 six to eight weeks after Office 2008 for Mac is available.  We also will release a final version of the stand-alone converter soon after.

Why wait until after we ship to release the final converters? The converters include and rely upon the same new code that lives in Office 2008 (so you're getting early access to some of the new code today - running natively as a Universal Binary, of course). As the code improves in the applications, so will the converters improve, and as a result the converters will not be final until Office 2008 is also fully complete and fully tested.

Incremental updates to the beta converter will be coming this summer, including those to roll in PowerPoint and Excel document support. If you have installed the new beta converter, these updates will be pushed out automatically through the Microsoft AutoUpdate service.

Congratulations to the product team here in MacBU on the great progress made as we approach the finish line on Microsoft's best ever release of Office for the Macintosh - Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac - and a big thanks for your hard work in building the converter.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the Office Open XML formats and the ways third parties are adopting and plugging into them, Brian Jones' blog is a great place to start.