Open XML support in older versions of Office

I was just reading this article in wired (,72403-0.html?tw=wn_technology_4) and it looks like there is still some misunderstanding about where Open XML is going to be supported. Here is the piece of the article I'm talking about:

Significantly, OOXML will not work with older versions of Microsoft Office, which alone could motivate some to upgrade.

"Microsoft's legacy formats give them a great ramp into whatever next thing they are selling. Even if it's herring," says Sam Hiser, vice president and director of business affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the ODF standard.

Of course, as most of the readers on this blog know, even folks with older versions of Office can read and write the new file formats. There are free updates available today that allow you to do this:

It's funny that there is still this perception of a file format "war". Some folks in the other camp who often get quoted in these articles actually like to compare it to Star Wars where there is good against evil. I just don't see it. You can pick either format if you want. There are free translators in the works today that will allow MS Office users to open and save ODF files (, and Novell is adding Open XML support to Open Office. Corel already said they were going to support all of Open XML and the text part of ODF. Apple was one of the key members of the Ecma technical committee that standardized Open XML (and they've actually supported earlier versions of WordprocessingML for awhile now).

These formats are not about pushing a specific application, but instead about unlocking customer's data. That makes all applications more valuable because it allows for the data from those applications to interoperate with other applications and other systems.

The big thing I'm waiting for is other applications like OpenOffice to support custom defined schemas. This would mean that rather than simply sharing wordprocessing or spreadsheet information, we can share actual customer information. For example you could take health care data, or invoice data, or RFP data from one of the applications and move it over to the other without losing that semantic meaning. It would be like that demo many of you have seen me do where I take data from a table in Excel and move it over to Word where it's formatted more like a catalog.



Comments (14)

  1. Niklas says:

    Even though the converter you tip of is needed, I suspect a lot of people like myself miss a converter pack for Office 97.

  2. Niklas, while the converter won’t surface itself in Office 97, you should be able to install it as a standalone app. You can then just right click on the files and you’ll get a "save as…" option where you can convert them from .doc to .docx and back.

    So just convert them to .doc and you can then open in O97.


  3. Ian Ringrose says:

    Will there be a free web based convert for people that cannot install software on a PC, e.g. a website that will convert a file I upload between the old and new format?

    An email based convert would also be great, so that I could just forward an email to it that contains a file in the new format, and it would email me back the file in the old format.

    Will I be able to tell Outlook to always include both formats in an email message when I add an attachment, so I don’t need to think about what version of Word the person I am emailing has?

  4. Sam Hiser says:


    Thanks for the PR. What we mean is that people — the Great Unwashed — don’t use things like Office Compatibility Pack.

    This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the "Power of the Default" (which Hal Varian described clearly in The Economist a while back).

    And by ‘herring’ I don’t wish to denigrate the diligent & skillful work you’re actually doing here; however, your superiors and the lawyers who run your company are positioning your work as something it is not: open. That’s fraud.

  5. Ian,

    There aren’t any plans on the Microsoft side for such a service, but I wouldn’t be suprised if you see other do it.

    As you can imagine, we did a lot of research and planning before we first made the decision to change over to a new file format. Many of your asks (like the dual-file thing in Outlook) were things that we considered. Ultimately we had to narrow down to the key set of features that we thought would be necessary to minimize any potential user pain.


    Thanks for the comment. I think there are varying degrees of openness. The key is not to get into a philosophical debate, but instead just discuss what the user scenarios are and see what level of openness is needed for that to be a success.

    ODF for example could have been handled more like Wikipedia, and completely skipped OASIS. They could have just set up a wiki, and allowed anyone to make modifications/corrections/etc. That would have been more open, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would have done a better job of solving the technical problems it was intended to address.

    The same goes for Open XML.


  6. Dave S. says:

    I’ve been dealing with interoperability for over 25 years and it is always the same exact problem: People don’t say what they mean.

    XML is not a substantial improvement over any other format descriptor, it is a slight improvement. The substantial improvement is accurately documenting what is to be interchanged and how.

    It’s like saying the world’s problems would be solved if everyone just spoke Esperanto. So, why did you pick English?

  7. Sam Hiser says:


    I appreciate your response. The Wikipedia example would have been good for, say, Rollerball; but of course we’re talking about documents.

    I’m happy to delve into user scenarios. Trouble is, what people use is your old applications. The ODF movement is happening in government because those organizations’ needs are not being well met (particularly with regard to the long-term confidence/access to data, as you know). The scenario Massachusetts envisions is one where they & the citizens of the Commonwealth can access data for a long time to come — certainly longer than the life-cycles established by the MTBE ("Mean-Time-Before-EOL") of your last three formats. (I know there were some meaningful improvements in them…)

    I’m not really into Philosophy either. Openness is black & white. You’re either open or not. One proprietary dependency throws the works. (Debian threw out OpenOffice for a while just because there were some silly features dependent upon Java. Java, a proprietary dependency? At the time I thought they were mad, but look what it earned them: that conservatism and the willingness to stand by it — in principal and practise — and sacrifice in the short-run means they’re, like, the only real Linux distro standing.) Believe me, there’s no gray in a pan-national government boycott of your next software release.

    I think you would be very successful with ODF as the default format in Office 12, anyway. It would permit a lot of supercool business process capabilities and you will still outrun most of the market on integration — but not by chasing tail-lights.

    As it is, the market — or at least the government accounts — are so enamoured of open source that even I can’t get my Plugin financed because I want to hide the internal methods from you. (They insist on open source.) In this environment — where everyone is educated on your old lockin tactics — your company simply looks like the last bitter roadkill in that Mad Max movie called "The Innovators Dilemema".  

  8. Sam, what parts of the Open XML standard prevent it’s long term archivability?

  9. Sam Hiser says:

    Great question, Brian.

    For one — and I needn’t go even further — it’s the Scope & Programme of Work statement of Ecma TC45 itself — the objective statement…

    <blockquote>1. To Produce a formal Standard for office productivity documents which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats</blockquote>

    It’s a specification document based upon an existing set of formats. My understanding of open standards is the spec comes first and the format comes later.

    A CIO — who is a reasonable person — would not in good judgement try to archive public records in another proprietary format — even if it has ‘Open’ and ‘XML’ in the name.

  10. Sam, could we start with the actual scenario? I’m sorry, but that’s the easiest way for me to talk about things. It provides a great way to frame the discussion.

    Let’s deal with the scenario of long term archivability first. Is there anything in the spec that prevents it’s use as a long term archival format? You mentioned the CIO, but that’s more of an idealogical reason… it would be great to drill into this case a bit further. What is there that would prevent the files from being opened in 100+ years?

    There aren’t any requirements on specific platforms or specific applications, so I would think it should work.



  11. Sam Hiser says:

    We don’t need 100. 5 years is sufficient: that’s the average time Microsoft takes to EOL its formats.

    There are many proprietary dependencies in the specification. A single one is enough to rule the Microsoft Office Open XML formats a bad option for archival purposes. (Elsewhere, we’re documenting many of them with page references to the relevant Part 4 of the Spec. I’m sorry but there are so many that it makes quite boring reading.)

    Actual scenario. It’s 2073 in Massachusetts. The capital has moved to Framingham from Boston due to the locusts of 2038. A secretary of the Chief of the Office of Water Resources has a document in the .docx format and it contains a list of metal parts, vendors, sizes and version information from the plans and specifications for the gigantic barriers that the Dutch Firm of van Esselink & van Persie built to keep the Charles River from flooding the Harvard and MIT campuses (due to global warming). Only, when they moved to Framingham, they de-provisioned the two 65 year old PCs they kept for accessing those old documents (Apple had acquired Microsoft in 2017 on the day Steve Jobs retired). The Water Office needs that document BAAAAD or else they will need to start the landfill plans rolling by Saturday — which is too expensive and besided might alter the view from Luscombe Hall, etc…

    You get my point. It’s a great story though.

    Companies come & go. Open consortia are preferable stewards for an Essential Facility like the document format.

  12. Sam, could you provide a couple examples? Thanks.


  13. Fernando says:

    Gosh, Sam Hiser is even more embarassing than Gary Edwards…

  14. Sam Hiser says:

    Sorry I lost the plot for a few days, Brian. Work sometimes takes priority over my PR efforts to undermine your fraudulent format.

    I’ve been writing a white paper on precisely the question — with a couple of examples. So it would be self-defeating to air them here.

    Basically, the Microsoft Office Open XML formats are going down. The ISO fast-track process is now effectively over. The format standardization process is stalled indefinitely and you will be doing a major overhaul this year.

    What is possibly even more problematic for your company, Brian, is the *other* software which depends upon Microsoft Office Open XML. I am referring to Trusted Computing, IRM, DRM, XML Paper Specification, the Open Packaging Conventions and the quite numerous ways the formats are designed to interact with other products. They will all need to be re-engineered if you intend to sell them to any sophisticated customers.

    My advice remains: use ODF or lose the market.

    Gosh, Fernando! What’s more embarassing than getting caught supporting Microsoft Office Open XML when it’s so clearly understood out in the open?

    Gosh…heavens me!

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