Office goes XML
So why has Microsoft suddenly decided to open up its file formats this way? Well, the gamble it is taking is a simple one: there is no value in having a closed, proprietary format anymore, so we might as well open it up, but we will make sure we supply you with the best tool for manipulating that data. So, the story goes, although Word DOCX files will be able to be read and written by any old tool under the sun including Notepad, the best tool for handling them will still be Word itself, and the same goes for Excel. Microsoft will be providing a number of important tools with the Office 12 release too. First, there will be a tool that scans across all your hard disks, both in your local storage and on the server, and automatically converts all old format Office files into new XML format versions. Then there will be a set of converter filters for Office 2000, 2003 and XP, which will allow them to read, edit and save in the new file formats.
There might be some companies that want to stick with the old file format and have nothing to do with the new XML world. That’s fine too, as by using a group policy you will be able to force all the machines to use the old native format if you wish. Why would you want to do that? Well, in the past, going to a text-based XML file format could result in a significant file-size increase, which is to be expected when you replace each bit in a binary byte with a text string or character. Microsoft is countering this problem in Office 12 XML format by compressing each file using the ZIP algorithm. Such compression will be on by default and will basically zip up each file into its own little package – open it up with an unzipper and you will get the raw, text-based XML file format.
So is this all going to be worth it, and what is the benefit to you and me? Well, moving away from proprietary file formats is a good thing, period, and should be encouraged if only because it ups the ante for the competitors, who will not be able to whinge that ‘our product would be just as good as Word/Excel/whatever if only we weren’t locked out by the file format’. Now the competition will have no excuses and will have to provide full file compatibility, or else admit that their tool is not as good as the Microsoft equivalent.
The real benefit, though, will be in the use of Office data files outside of the Office applications that created them. I will now be able to trawl through my Word documents looking for important topics without having to fire up Word to do the work for me. I will also be able to create a document production system that writes out Word documents and templates, just by stringing together the Word XML components and writing the file to disk. I will even be able to drill into the results calculation in an Excel spreadsheet just by reading the file, without starting up Excel. There is a galaxy of possibilities here, and Microsoft and the industry need to move fast to make the benefits clear. This is a much bigger event than just a file format change and, despite all gloomy predictions to the contrary, Microsoft has kept to its promise about making these file formats both open and up-to-date.
I needed a new external CD/DVD burner last week, so I dropped into my local shop to see what was available. I was astonished to see that the prices for super-fast DVD burners that do all formats has fallen to well under £100, so I added one to my basket, happy in the knowledge that I could plug it into anything from a desktop PC or a Mac to a rack-mounted server. I also noticed that it would support DVD double-layer discs. The price of these discs is still laughably prohibitive compared to single-layer discs, but they appeal to my toy-buying nature, so a five-pack fell into the trolley too.