We shall go on to the end,...we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
- Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940
If there was any doubt left in anyone's mind that Microsoft will do everything that it can, and wherever it must, to ensure that ODF makes the minimum inroads possible into its vastly profitable Office franchise, the news of the day should put that doubt to rest. In the continuing tit for tat battle between ODF and OOXML, Microsoft announced yesterday
it's own interoperability project to bridge the gap between China's domestically developed Unified Office Format (UOF) and Microsoft's OOXML. The announcement tracks the intent of an already-existing "harmonization" committee, hosted by OASIS, that is exploring interoperability options between ODF and UOF, and also underlines Microsoft's increasing focus on the vast Chinese market.
This news is no surprise, in one sense. Microsoft has been waging a nation-by-nation battle for the hearts and minds of ISO/IEC JTC1 National Bodies, in an effort to win adoption of OOXML (now Ecma 376) as a global standard with equal status to ODF (now ISO 26300). In order to do so, it needs to offset the argument that one document format standard is not only enough, but preferable. With UOF representing a third entrant in the format race, easy translation of documents created using the competing formats would obviously be key to lessen the burden on customers. Moreover, last month, Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy called for the outright merger of UOF and ODF in a speech he delivered in Beijing – just a few days before Bill Gates arrived to keynote a Microsoft conference being held nearby.
The story is in another sense no surprise as well. While in Beijing, Gates engaged in many meetings with government and industry figures, emphasizing the importance of China to Microsoft's future strategies
. As well he might, given China's enormous population of increasingly affluent consumers, its burgeoning industrial power, and its growing willingness to police software piracy. We now know at least one of the topics Gates wished to discuss at those meetings, and Microsoft's decision to offer a bridge between its world-dominating product and China's aspiring format was a shrewd one. Thus, the obvious motivation to neutralize the harmonization effort between ODF and UOF may have been less powerful than Microsoft's signaling its willingness to partner with China over UOF, rather than fight it. To the Chinese, the announcement of the translation tools project will doubtless be heralded as an impressive validation of the Chinese standard on the world stage at a time when China is still smarting over the defeat of WAPI by WIFI.
Microsoft has been pursuing closer relations with the Chinese government in its usual thorough and impressive way, and has left few, if any, details to chance. Last month, I spoke at the same Beijing event keynoted by McNeally, and had the opportunity to witness some of this thoroughness first-hand. Microsoft made its interest in the Chinese marketplace very clear in the same ways that the Chinese government uses to signal its own priorities: on the road in from the airport, huge billboards and banners touted the Microsoft conference, and on every block in the center of Beijing, signs bearing the single English word Wow!, plus additional text in Mandarin and the Microsoft Vista® logo, spread the word: Microsoft is in town, and it's here to stay.
So what do we know so far about the UOF-OOXML translation project? According to the press release, this project, like the OOXML-ODF translator project announced by Microsoft last year, will be hosted by SourceForge. The press release goes on to state:
UOF translation tools will be developed and licensed as open source software, and ultimately will be made available as free, downloadable add-ins for Microsoft Office Word 2003 and 2007 customers from SourceForge.net. As such, the tools will be available for use with other individual and commercial projects to accelerate document interoperability across the industry and benefit Microsoft Office customers in China who need to work with the UOF standard.
A SourceForge project page has already been set up, and can be found here
. A statement there promises that the translator will be available under a "very liberal BSD license," the text of which is reproduced at the SourceForge page.
From a messaging point of view, Microsoft is teeing the initiative up as part of its "continued commitment to deliver interoperability by design," a methodology it bases on four approaches - with standardization being only one of the four (the others involve unilateral actions by Microsoft, or one-on-one activities between Microsoft and its customers). The text of the press release also references its commitment to meet the needs and requests of its government customers. More generally, the plug quote for the release comes from Jean Paoli, general manager of Interoperability and XML Architecture at Microsoft, and reads as follows:
Our customers have told us their data needs can’t be addressed by a one-format or one-standard-fits-all approach,” said . “Everyone wants to use their data in slightly different ways. That’s why we are enabling customers to pick from whatever format they want to use with their Office documents — whether it’s ODF, Open XML, PDF, or new standards like UOF.
This will hardly be the last beach upon which Microsoft will defend its Office franchise. And certainly the viability of its home base is hardly in question. But it remains to be seen whether this latest initiative will prove to be an effective way to expand that franchise into a huge new market, or an ineffective holding action in the erosion of its empire by ODF-compliant products.
The project page also includes a goals statement, which reads as follows:
As part of Microsoft’s continued commitment to interoperability, Microsoft decided to work with CHINA Electronics Standardization Institute, Beijing Information Technology Institute, one of the co-creators of the UOF Chinese standard , Beihang University of Beijing and with other partners to create a Translator between UOF and Open XML and provide interoperability between the two formats in both directions. Microsoft is funding and providing technical architectural guidance for the development of the translator that will benefit millions of people who live in China.
Similar to an earlier ODF - OpenXML Translator project, this work is being developed as an open source collaborative effort between commercial software vendors and academic institutions under a very liberal BSD-like license. The Translator will enable Microsoft Word 2007 & Microsoft Word 2003 to read and write UOF documents. The Translator will also enable bulk translation of documents between the two formats.
A schedule at the project page calls for a prototype to be available on July 30 this summer, and for release of the full version on January 30 of next year.