In the strongest sign yet that Microsoft has given up its stranglehold on office productivity document formats, the software giant today announced that it will enhance Microsoft Office with native support for competing formats. The change will first arrive in Office 2007 Service Pack 2 (SP2), due in early 2009, and will be implemented directly into the next major Office version, currently codenamed Office 14. Additionally, Microsoft has pledged to become more active in relevant document format standards bodies and working groups.

With regards to compatibility, Microsoft will add native support for Open Document Format (ODF) 1.1, Portable Document Format (PDF) 1.5 and PDF/A, and the XML Paper Specification (XPS). These formats will be treated as first class formats beginning with Office 2007 and can be configured as the default document format used in applicable Office applications.

"We are committed to providing Office users with greater choice among document formats and enhanced interoperability between those formats and the applications that implement them," said Microsoft senior vice president Chris Capossela. "By increasing the openness of our products and participating actively in the development and maintenance of document format standards, we believe we can help create opportunities for developers and competitors, including members of the open source communities, to innovate and deliver new value for customers."

Microsoft currently offers an Open XML-ODF translator via SourceForge.net and will continue supporting that so that user of older Office suites--Office 2000, XP, and 2003--can access and use ODF documents. The company also says it will join the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) technical committee to help guide the direction of future versions of ODF and will participate in the ISO/IEC working groups for ODF, Open XML, and document interoperability.

Microsoft's Office document formats were once seen as one of the company's "crown jewels," but in a recent briefing with the company, I was told that Microsoft now considers its Office applications, and not the document formats, as the place to innovate in this space. "We're opening up innovation at the application level," Doug Mahugh, a senior product manager for Microsoft Office, told me. "The value of the discussion is not the formats; it's in the tools that are solving problems for customers."