Open-source tool translates between office file formats

Open XML Translator 1.0 translates files between Office 2007 and open-source document formats

Developers funded by Microsoft delivered the first phase of an open-source tool designed to translate between the default Office 2007 file type and a competing open-source document format.

Open XML Translator 1.0 is available early for free on Source Forge, the open-source software development Web site where the first prototype of the Translator tool was posted last July. The tool was developed under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution license.

Open XML Translator is designed to transform documents between Open XML, which is the default format in Office 2007, and the Open Document Format (ODF), which was developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. ODF is based on an XML format originally created and implemented by the suite of productivity applications.

Critics says while the Translator is a good first step toward interoperability, more is needed around standardization.

"Any steps, however small, that move toward greater openness and interoperability are welcome," says Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance. "The Microsoft translator is an acknowledgement of the growing support for ODF, in particular the growing demand and pressure from governments."

The Translator, which is also compatible with Office 2003 and XP, only works with Microsoft Word in its first iteration. It is available in Dutch, French, German and Polish.

For example, when plugged into Word, the Translator provides customers with the choice to open and save documents in ODF rather than the native Open XML format. The Translator may also be plugged into competing word processing programs that use ODF as the default format to open and save documents in Open XML.

Versions for Excel and PowerPoint are under development and are expected to ship later this year, according to Microsoft officials.

The Translator is the result of a lingering debate, mostly spurred by issues within the government sector, over proprietary file formats in word processing and other productivity applications. The issue came to a head with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has decided to convert to nonproprietary file formats.

Critics have called the Translator a good first step as Microsoft attempts to address concerns of interoperability between its file formats and others such as ODF.

The issue, however, is one of fidelity or how faithfully the formatting on an Open XML document can be recreated in ODF, which is supported in applications developed by IBM, Novell, Sun and others.

"If you have legacy documents and the format is important to you then you have to use a lot of evaluation and testing to make sure this is going to work for you," says Chris LeTocq, principal analyst of Guernsey Research. "If you want to generate ODF, [the Translator] will do that, but because there are more features in the Microsoft applications than are supported by ODF you have to be a little bit careful about the move."

LeTocq says the Translator is not a silver bullet.

Indeed, Microsoft is not trying to classify the tool as a panacea.

"Where is the catch here," says Jean Paoli, general manager for interoperability and XMO architecture at Microsoft. "The ODF format will not express the full range of features that Microsoft Office has. We have been saying that from the very beginning. The goal of ODF was not to express all the features of Office."

Microsoft says its focus in helping develop the tool was to support a level of interoperability, to work with the open-source community such as Novell (which has announced that the Translator will be natively implemented in its next version of OpenOffice) and to foster standardization.

Open XML was standardized in December by ECMA International, which has since submitted the format for adoption by the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission.

Microsoft funded creation of the Translator, which was developed by French-based Clever Age and tested by independent software vendors Aztecsoft in India and Dialogika in Germany.

ODF advocates still say that Microsoft needs to go beyond the Translator and provide native support for ODF.

"Virtually every other major office productivity suite has been able to do so, not to mention the growing list of Web-based applications that provide native support," says Marcich of the ODF Alliance.

Microsoft is coy about that possibility.

"ODF is still in flux," says Microsoft's Paoli. "Today we think it best to create this add-on so it can move and be updated while ODF is changing. At the end of the day, the market will speak, and if there is huge demand and the ODF spec is very stable, maybe, why not. But for now, we felt the Translator is the most flexible and gives the most customer value."

Marcich, however, says there is a bigger question around standardization that users should focus on.

"The portability of ODF is one of its many strengths. ODF helps separate the document [information] from the application that created it, allowing multiple applications to compete on functionality and price."

He says that concept is the whole idea behind having a single document format.

"Are we talking about competition between standards for document formats, or competition between products? Governments and consumers would clearly benefit from the latter, which is what ODF provides," he says.