Traditionally, document formats were tethered to the authoring tool. But today information needs to be more fluid. Microsoft has been one company that has taken the initiative to open file formats, designing an interoperable document format named Office Open XML (OOXML). In this article, we discuss why OOXML is important not only to Microsoft, but also to the enterprise.

An Evolution

Prior to Microsoft Office 2007, Office documents were saved in proprietary binary file formats designed for Office applications such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Despite this, third-party products have existed for several years that extend the capabilities of Office and allow for tighter integration between Office and other products. Additionally, other productivity suites, such as OpenOffice, have been able to read and save Office documents for years. Yet, Microsoft maintained control.

Of course, there are some advantages in doing this, the most important of which is that it allowed Microsoft to have absolute authority over the file format. This means that Microsoft could ensure backward compatibility when desired, as well as easily extend the file format to allow for new features within Office.

Yet, the “advantage” of having such tight control also proved to be a limitation for Microsoft and the end-user. Specifically, the ecosystem of third-party add-ons that evolved around Microsoft Office has generally had a very limited scope. Despite the reach of Office, it has always had a very limited focus within the enterprise, and most third-party extensions only gave desktop users more features rather than expanding the scope of Office—in other words, Office would always be a productivity suite and nothing more if something didn’t change.

A Shifting View

Things did begin to change several years ago as organizations began asking for more open standards. Also, productivity suites such as OpenOffice—prevalent on Linux desktops—implemented open formats to increase interoperability between both users and applications. Enterprises noticed and wanted Microsoft to do the same.

Microsoft was also seeing an internal shift in how Office was viewed. Rather than being limited to a desktop application, why not leverage the strengths of XML so that Office could become more of a service-oriented tool within the enterprise? In other words, why restrict Office to desktop use when a structured and open format could be used by enterprise applications to gain more operational efficiency?

Microsoft made a decision: Support an open document format. With Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft now stores documents in Microsoft’s OOXML. (Previous versions of Office can access these files using a free add-on.) In the short-term, this may not seem all that profound. After all, desktop users will continue doing what they’ve always done: creating and saving Office documents. But in the long-term, this could mean some very significant benefits for both Microsoft and enterprises.

One obvious and immediate benefit is that the Office ecosystem has a lot more room for growth. The reach of Office can now extend beyond just the desktop and deeper into the enterprise. Essentially, with an open format, Office and third-party tools can now create documents that can be easily read, written, and adapted for use by other applications and services—perhaps even deep into the enterprise data center.

Let’s speculate a bit more about the potential for an open XML-based standard such as OOXML and its role in the enterprise. Take for example a user who needs to manipulate data within an organization’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application. Right now, users have only a few options for getting at the data. One method is to access and manipulate the ERP information using a vendor-supplied interface—this option is certainly always available but not very flexible. Alternatively, they can get a dump of the data they need (e.g., in CSV format), import it into an application such as Excel, and manipulate it there. (To further complicate things, they may need to import the data back into the ERP.)

Open Communication

Now jump forward a few years when OOXML may not only be used to save files, but in communication between Office and enterprise applications—including the user’s ERP. Office suddenly becomes a flexible and familiar front-end for accessing the user’s data. And instead of relying on stale information from CSV downloads, Excel (or any Office application for that matter) dynamically retrieves and updates the ERP with little or no translation needed.

Now imagine this happening across all of your enterprise applications. No funky, proprietary vendor plug-ins or ODBC configuration—each application speaks natively to Office using a single documented and open standard.

This is just one example of where OOXML may be headed. There really is a lot more ground to cover about OOXML, including real-world use cases for integration and interoperability. In addition, several important comparisons can be made between OOXML and OpenDocument. So be ready to learn more in the future!

For more information about interoperability, go to http://www.microsoft.com/interop.