As reported by The Register, Neowin and (with cynical comments a-plenty) Slashdot, Microsoft are planning on using an XML-based format for its Office documents, the documentation to which they are making available for download. For free. And available to open-source developers:
Q. Can the licenses for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas be used by open source developers?
A. Yes. Open source developers who wish to participate in a community development project can enter into the agreements and then work in a collaborative fashion on development of a program or programs.
I’ll admit it, I’m stumped. For a company such as Microsoft, who have for so long based a lot of their policy around vendor lock-in and “decommoditizing protocols” to turn around and open up their file formats seems like such a complete volte-face that it defies belief. I therefore have two questions:
- Is there a catch and, if so, what?
- Why are they doing this?
Firstly, catch possibilities. The first of these is that an XML-based file format is not a panacea for all things interoperable. By way of demonstration, this is (as far as I can figure out) valid XML:
<?xml version="1.1"?> <!DOCTYPE binarydata [ <!ELEMENT binarydata (#PCDATA)> ]> <binarydata> 01001000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111 </binarydata>
I’ll agree it’s a rather contrived example, but you see my point: XML doth not a good format make.
The next catch possibility is that the schemas appear only to be free in the beer sense: they have some kind of agreement attached to them (which I can’t get to, as they’re in an MSI installer). There is, however, a link to a Danish government website which apparently offers more information (more on that later). An interesting question is whether this license is compatible with the GPL, but I’m not a lawyer so I couldn’t tell you.
The Danish website is perhaps the most interesting connection here: while the site itself isn’t overly comprehensible (with mixed-together English and Danish even in the ‘English’ section) it would seem to suggest that perhaps the Danish government have stood up to Microsoft and said “Open up your formats or you will lose high-value government contracts throughout Europe”. If this is true, it would appear to be good all-round for everyone: good for governments, good for Microsoft, good for the hard-working chaps behind OpenOffice, good for Joe Customer.
I’m afraid I will have to remain sceptical, however, until such a time if and when it all comes together. Will Microsoft become some benevolent force for good in this world? Is this some sneaky trick to undermine the open-source community? Will something come out of Denmark which is even better than those sweet sticky pastry things? Comments please.