Office 12 needs to be more format-friendly

Microsoft must accept that PDF and OpenDoc are here to stay

I'm getting a little bored with all the hoopla surrounding document formats in Office 12. Although output is important, the new glow surrounding smart XML-based data interchange is supposed to make these worries about specific proprietary file formats less important. Instead, it seems to have become a major war cry for Office suite competitors.

Microsoft has had its own formats since the inception of the productivity suite concept. In the beginning, everyone else had theirs and cross-suite compatibility was impossible or a third-party issue. Then Office stomped the competition into the ground in terms of market share, and anyone competing in the space made sure to be compatible with Office file formats both coming and going. Then Acrobat messed everything up.

Now we've got XML. So Office 12 will have a whole slew of new file format options. First, there's its own file formats. It'll support the old .doc, .xls, and all the rest. In addition, it'll support a new XML and Zip-based file format that will add a few schema and developer-oriented documents to the tail of any existing document, allowing those docs to be more easily parsed into some third-party application, Web service, or (theoretically) third-party productivity suite such as OpenOffice.

But wait, there's more.

Bolstered by the success of Acrobat, Microsoft decides to … reinvent the wheel. It creates its own PDF-like file format, called XPS (XML Paper Specification, formerly code-named Metro after my second least-favorite Eddie Murphy cop movie). This is an electronic paper concept, very similar to Acrobat, but with (supposedly) more granular permissions controls, and of course, a Microsoft-only bent. Which begs the question: What's the point?

To make it worse, Microsoft has also announced it'll support the actual Acrobat in Office 12; undoubtedly because Save to PDF is one of the favorite user features of OpenOffice. Press a button, save into PDF. No muss, no fuss, no added licensing costs.

But wait, there's more.

For users who enjoy frustration, there's also RMS (Rights Management Services). Configure this on your Windows Server 2003 network, and users can assign extremely specific controls over who sees what, when, and what rights they might have to modify it. In other words, it's Acrobat with all kinds of additional brains. And these brains can be applied to any Windows file, including all the Office formats. So now, it looks like Microsoft will provide us with three ways to get exactly the same thing in Office 12.

Meanwhile, the non-Redmond community is screaming bloody murder about the superiority of the OpenDoc standard, and how anybody who isn't a complete Microsoft shill should be using that format and nothing else. I'm sick of it.

Microsoft should get its Office formats act together. Three technologies that take you to exactly the same place is two technologies too many. Here's my recipe:

1. Support PDF; Adobe beat you there, live with it.

2. Drop XPS and make some form of RMS free functionality under Office 12 with the new Office back-end server. Now you've got them coming and going with way more functionality than anything else, and there's no need to go further.

3. Just implement OpenDoc as a supported Office standard. It's open source, so why not? It doesn't hurt Office to support it, and it'll stop all this inter-format war mongering.

There. Problem solved, now we can get back to work figuring out how the hell WWF (Windows Workflow Foundation) is really going to work.