Microsoft plans to offer its Word, Excel and PowerPoint document formats as open standards.

The company said it would submit its Office Open XML (Extensible Markup Language) document format technology to the International Standards Organization (ISO) to be adopted as an international standard in time for the launch of Office 12.

The development comes as Microsoft's rivals led by IBM and Sun Microsystems are mobilizing a global effort to push the OASIS consortium's Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) as a global standard format. The effort was spurred in part by a highly publicised proposal in Massachusetts requiring compliance with OpenDocument for government documents, which would mean the phasing out of Microsoft Office and its proprietary format.

Open but opaque

Microsoft has been facing increasing pressure from governments and agencies as they have insisted on standards-compliance for their software.

Critics say Microsoft is using the move as an "end run" around having to support OpenDocument, which has the backing of a host of vendors, including IBM, Sun, Novell, Red Hat, Google, Apple and Intel. This is because companies can take a look at ISO standards, but they can't use them to build their own applications, said Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager of and chair of the group's governing council.

"With an open standard any application can use it," he said. "With an ISO standard, it's not quite the same thing. It just means you have a reference for it."

Microsoft's Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft's Information Worker Business Strategy, admitted that the move would help Microsoft compete against OpenOffice, though he said he believed that the company was already in competition with this format.

Government pressure

The decision reflects pressure from the European Commission and member governments of the European Union. Yates said that Microsoft has been asked to standardise its formats. The issue has come up at series of meetings between company executives and EU government officials.

Microsoft also is planning to release tools so that old documents will be able to take advantage of the open standard. "It's the end of closed documents," he said.

Microsoft has assembled a group of major industry users and computer firms to support its move. These include companies like Apple, BP, Intel and Norwegian oil company Statoil.

The group will make a joint submission to the Geneva-based European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) for the XML document formats for the three Office products to become an open standard. The ECMA's evaluation process is expected to take around a year. Once completed, ECMA will forward a request to the ISO, which is also based in Geneva.

Microsoft's Yates explained that the timing had been chosen to ensure that the XML formats became open standards in time for the launch of Office 12 toward the end of next year.