Microsoft on Thursday bowed to pressure from governments to offer new free open source software that will allow its Office suite of programmes to handle documents in rival formats.
The company said it would develop tools to build a “technical bridge” between its own Open XML document format and the OpenDocument format (ODF).
“In addition to being made available as free, downloadable add-inns for several older versions of the Microsoft Office system, the translation tools will be developed and licensed as open source software,” said Microsoft.
The company explained that the move was “in response to government requests for interoperability with ODF because they work with constituent groups that use that format”. The tools will be developed with the help of French company Clever Age with input from India’s Aztecsoft and Dialogika of Germany.
ODF is a non-proprietary document format developed by a consortium of companies such as IBM, SAP and Sun Microsystems and set to be adopted by the US government as its standard for documents next year.
On Thursday, e-government chiefs welcomed Microsoft’s move.
“This tool promises to be a very significant development in the trend towards practical open document standards and, critically, customer-friendly means to move between them,” said Andrew Hopkirk, director of the e-government operability framework programme at the UK’s National Computing Centre.
In a turnaround for the company, which typically keeps a firm grip on its source code, Microsoft stressed that the translation tools would be “broadly available” to the IT industry for use with other projects in a bid to boost interoperability and increase customer choice.
“We are sharing it with the industry by submitting it, with others, to become a worldwide standard. Yet it is very important that customers have the freedom to choose from a range of technologies to meet their diverse needs,” said Jean Paoli, general manager of interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft.
Microsoft is having to defend its software hegemony from the trend towards open source software brought on by the rise of the internet, with several governments favouring the Linux operating system over Microsoft’s Windows and increasing numbers of internet users abandoning Internet Explorer for open source alternatives such as Mozilla Firefox.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is fighting attempts by the European Union to force it to reveal to rivals substantial amounts of technical information about its flagship Windows program as part of an antitrust case focusing on its Windows Media Player software.