Office 12 To Boost XML Support, Document Security

Office 12

A company exec was quick to note, however, that the new applications will also support the traditional binary .doc, .xl, and .ppt formats, but unless users designate otherwise, their work will save to the XML choice. The default format can be changed during or after deployment, Microsoft said. With this version of Office, PowerPoint is brought into the XML fold, along with Word and Excel.

Backward compatibility with current file formats is also important. If a Word 2000 user ships a document to someone on the latest Word, changes made by the recipient will automatically save back to the original application's native file format. Thus the new Word will open even a Word 97 file and save information back to that format so it can be read by the originator.

"The roundtrip will be seamless," said Takeshi Numoto, senior director in Microsoft's Information Worker Product Management Group.

If this scenario works as planned, it should please users who have, in the past, been burned by Microsoft format changes even within the same product line. Microsoft will talk more about Open XML and Office 12 at TechEd 2005 next week.

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In addition IT or author will be able to designate whether an executable file embedded in that document will be able to run or not, Numoto said.

A document designated with a .docx suffix, for example, will neuter embedded .exe files while one with a .docm suffix will allow them to run.

He also reiterated Microsoft's past pledges to publish its XML format specifications and schemas in advance of the product launch and them as royalty-free downloads.

The current Office 2003 allows users to save Word and Excel documents to its own WordML and SpreadsheetML (XML) formats. The new version adds PowerPoint to the mix. Numoto said those formats, as well as the upcoming iterations, are completely compliant with the XML 1.0 standard.

The file formats were designed to more efficiently encapsulate different data types, Numoto said. The total file is zipped for compression, but individual components are also compressed. So chart information is shrunk down in the way best applicable to that type of data as is the text information. "In some cases we see file sizes cut 75 percent," Numoto said.

Microsoft is doling out tidbits about Office 12 more proactively as the fall 2005 beta approaches. Many say the company still needs to provide compelling reasons for current Office customers to upgrade even off of Office 2000 and XP versions.

One long-time partner was unimpressed with the discussion of XML support. "Unless they're introducing inherent support for SAML or external access to documents to truly facilitate document security, it's not that big a deal," he said. If the "x" and "m" suffixes mean that the code is actually parsed programmatically to avoid code execution, that could be useful, he said. But if users can work around that designation to re-enable the executables, it is "window dressing," he said. A spokeswoman said the former is the case and that .x and m designations will be programmatically honored. "An 'M' at the end indicates executable/macros are inside -- systems will be able to programmatically check the file format for executables, and if companies don't want to enable macros, they can have their IT systems remove them even if it was originally an 'M' file. More importantly, however, if someone tried to change the 'M' to an 'X' to try to slip an unsuspecting macro on someone, it won't work -- the executables won't run in X files.

Microsoft partners say the company has to show users—who loathe change-- why they should upgrade. "For me, the compelling reason to move to Office 2003 was SharePoint integration. If, in Office 12, they go collaboration crazy by integrating more Groove technologies, that could be big," said one long-time Microsoft partner in the south.

Microsoft has said it will incorporate some of Groove's secure collaboration technology in the "Office12 wave" but has been guarded on specifics.

Microsoft has unveiled plans for some new "Office Servers" like Maestro for realtime analytics to boost migrations to the latest-and-greatest Office.

But it has not yet publicized internal plans for an InfoPath Server that would ease dissemination of electronic forms to far-flung users, some of which might not have the InfoPath application deployed.

The company is also reportedly still weighing Excel server functionality that would probably end up pairing the Excel calculation engine with SharePoint Portal Server functions. Right now, with the Excel client application, when results are sent out, they are sent with the underlying formula, a situation that could cause a security problem. "A calculation engine that serves up the results of the spreadsheet as opposed to the spreadsheet itself would be very helpful," said one longtime partner. He also acknowledged that Microsoft has talked privately about an Excel Server engine for years now.

Office 12 is due to beta this fall and to ship in the second half of 2006.

Sources said initial plans were for Office 12 to be a Longhorn product. The scope and delay to Longhorn forced rethinking on that point, and Office 12 will run on Windows XP as well as Longhorn when it arrives. "What the Longhorn specific 'light up' features will be, it's too soon to say," Numoto said.