Office 12 jumps to XML

Forthcoming version of Office to adopt XML file formats for better data interoperability

In a move that could bring a chorus of both cheers and jeers, Microsoft has committed to adopting XML technology as the default file format in the next version of Office, expected to enter beta testing this fall.

The Microsoft Office Open XML Formats will become the defaults for the versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in Office 12, the code name for the upcoming version of the application suite. The new technology reportedly gives Office users higher levels of data interoperability at the client and server levels.

XML file formats bring several technical benefits to Office, including better security, improved error recovery, and significantly reduced file sizes.

The move marks the first time since 1997 that Microsoft has changed the file formats in Office. The previous switch caused compatibility issues for users with older versions of Office. Although Microsoft officials said there should be no such major disruptions this time, some industry observers expect some difficulty in making the transition.

“There likely will be pain with backward compatibility, especially among those people who have built significant integrations with the current version of Office. But it should get easier with XML, where they are talking about publishing the schemas and information on the XML patterns,” said Jim Murphy, a senior research analyst at AMR Research.

“This is one of those moves where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they stuck with the traditional binary file format and offered the XML file format as an option, people would criticize them for not being sincere,” said Peter O’Kelly, a senior analyst at Burton Group.

However, O’Kelly and others see the decision to use the XML file formats as more than lip service.

“This is more than just getting the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal’ of standards approval. They are actually improving upon the binary file format they had before, like the ability to significantly compress files. It is taking their commitment to XML as a file format to the next level,” O’Kelly said.