Microsoft will on Tuesday announce it is opening up access to its Office file formats to competitors, as part of a move to ensure the software giant does not lose lucrative government markets for its Office software.

The move will ensure that computer users will be able to open and work with Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents without having to buy the Microsoft Office software to do so.

The move is separate to Microsoft’s ongoing antitrust case with the European Commission, but comes in response to another concern raised by the European Union executive body.

The Commission is eager to promote e-government services, but is concerned about access to public documents created in proprietary formats such as Microsoft Office. It is keen to ensure that all EU citizens are able to access electronic government documents without being obliged to buy a
specific company’s software.

It has been encouraging Microsoft and competitors such as Sun Microsystems and IBM to adopt open standards for office documents and ensure their products are interoperable. Sun and IBM took steps to open up their document formats last year, but Microsoft has been slow to respond.

Had Microsoft failed to act on the issue, the Commission could have stopped using Microsoft Office for the creation of public documents and advised all 25 national governments in the European Union to do the same.

Governments, especially in Europe and Asia, have been among the most significant adopters of open-source software such as Linux and Sun’s OpenOffice, a direct competitor to Microsoft Office.

Microsoft will submit its Office file formats to Ecma International, the standards body, which will develop the documentation and make it available to the industry. The move is being supported by a number of organisations including Apple Computer, Barclays Capital, BP, Intel and Toshiba.

Within about 18 months, customers, competitors and developers should be able to download detailed files from Ecma on how to create a Microsoft Word, Powerpoint or Excel document.

Microsoft began sharing some basic information on its Office software with the Danish government last year, but this will be the first time it has provided detailed information about the make-up of programs.

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