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Microsoft never relinquishes control easily; this time, it buckled to the bureaucrats. But its decision, related to its upcoming Office 12 suite, should help customers, particularly businesses that want to customize Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Microsoft will submit its Office Open XML-the format for files created in Office 12, due late next year-to Ecma International in Geneva for ratification within a year or so as an industry standard. It's not a first; parts of Microsoft's .Net Framework have been approved by the group. But in doing so, the company gives up unilateral control over how Office documents work.
The European Union wants Microsoft products to be more interoperable with other companies' software. Massachusetts applied pressure, too, by planning to archive millions of digital files in a format backed by IBM and Sun Microsystems, looking to ensure that data is readable even if Microsoft changes technical plans.
Companies including Apple and Intel say they'll support the Office 12 Ecma format. The ability for software from other companies to read and create files in ways compatible with Microsoft's software is becoming more important as customers connect business apps from vendors such as SAP and Oracle to Word and Excel.
But independent software vendors have had to reverse-engineer Microsoft's apps to gain compatibility, and integration isn't always seamless. Office "is basically a black box," says Paul DeGroot, an analyst at consulting firm Directions on Microsoft. Going to XML was a big change, and "now they have to convince developers that it's safe."