Microsoft Opens Up MS Office Document Formats

I wonder how this didn’t make Slashdot.

Microsoft has announced that it will make the file formats (specifically, schemas) for Excel 2003, InfoPath 2003, Visio 2003, and Word 2003, available for free download under a non-restrictive, free licence. Here’s the relevant part of the FAQ from the Office 2003 website.

Q. How do I get a license?

A. The license is available when you download the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas from the Microsoft Download Center.

Q. Who can obtain a license?

A. The license is not restricted to particular individuals or entities. It is available for customers, governments, academics, hobbyists, and IT companies.

Q. How restrictive is your license?

A. The license for the Office 2003 Editions XML Reference Schema is patterned on licenses for various XML standards efforts and allows for broad industry use.

Q. How much does the license cost?

A. The license for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas is being made available free of charge.

Ostensibly, this is being done to get around new “open standards” restrictions being imposed by the state of Massachusetts, but other than this reason, the move defies logic. Microsoft already has a stranglehold on the Office Suite market, perhaps an even firmer one than Windows has on the Operating Systems one. This move will only make the OpenOffice.org project developers’ life much easier. No more reverse-engineering of file formats in order to play well.

But by merely promoting an open standard, and committing to it remaining free “perpetually”, is not going to generate revenue for Microsoft. Even most (if not all) users of OpenOffice, whether on Windows or non-Windows operating platforms, still save all of their files in Microsoft Office formats. How will this result in greater sales of MS Office, or in stanching the rise of OpenOffice?

Perhaps it’s the exact reverse – Microsoft has estimated that OpenOffice is not an immediate threat to its market, so opening up the standard will make no difference to its revenue through increased adoption of OpenOffice. Besides, opening up the standard also earns Microsoft goodwill from corporate America and state governments; it also earns it brownie points in its battle with the Open Source community and their backers, chiefly IBM, Novell and Sun. Finally, such a move also strengthens its claim of promoting open standards.

Whatever the impact of this move on the players invoved, in the end, the customer always stands to gain – either from an improved OpenOffice, or simply better file formats based on feedback from the technological community.

And all I can say to Microsoft is – Humph! It’s About Time!