Microsoft puts older Office file formats in public domain

Makes technical specifications for binary formats openly available to external developers.

Microsoft said it has made technical information about all of its Office binary file formats openly available to outside software developers, while promising never to sue them for patent violations.

The specifications for the binary formats used by Word, Excel and PowerPoint files will be made available under Microsoft's Open Specification Promise (OSP) program, which the software vendor has used to publicly release a variety of its technical specifications.

The Office specifications being made available now include all of the binary file formats used in releases of the desktop applications suite from Office 97 through the current Office 2007. The native file format in Office 2007 is Office Open XML, not a binary format. But Office 2007 can still save files in binary formats that are basically identical to the ones used in Office 2003.

Microsoft previously released the specifications for Open XML through the OSP program in 2006, according to a spokeswoman for the company. It now is working along with the Ecma International standards body to get Open XML accepted as an ISO standard; a second round of voting is scheduled to take place within ISO later this month, after the proposed standard failed to get enough votes in an initial round last September.

The release of the binary format specifications could make it easier for programmers to write applications that interoperate with Office -- even in the case of open-source rivals to the Microsoft suite, such as OpenOffice.org or its close cousin, IBM's Symphony.

Microsoft already has given away information on the binary formats to hundreds of companies for free. But according to a blog post by Brian Jones, a program manager at Microsoft, several national standards bodies that are participating in the ISO process asked the company to make it easier to get technical information about the older Office file formats.

As part of the OSP program, Microsoft "irrevocably promises" not to assert any claims against developers "for making, using, selling, offering for sale, importing or distributing any implementation to the extent it conforms to a covered specification." Developers don't have to sign any licensing agreements to use the specifications, nor do they have to notify Microsoft of their usage or credit it within applications.

Even though Microsoft lets others freely make use of the technology, it still owns the formats. That's different from a full open-source license, which Microsoft also offers through its so-called shared-source licenses. Last fall, two of those licenses were certified by the Open Source Institute as valid means of distributing open-source technologies, putting them on an equivalent footing with the GNU General Public License or Apache Software License.

Microsoft also has made specifications for other in-house technologies available through OSP, most notably in the Web services arena. That includes an e-wallet authentication technology called the Identity Selector Interoperability Profile, plus specifications for the company's Virtual Hard Disk virtualization technology and its Sender ID technology for e-mail authentication.

Microsoft also announced that it is sponsoring an open-source project on the SourceForge Web site to help developers translate documents in binary formats to Open XML.

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