"Although down the road I think XML will be good for [Microsoft's] customers, in the short term, there will probably be some deployment issues," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that specializes in tracking the Redmond, Wash.-based developer.
DeGroot, as well as an analyst at rival Gartner, noted that when Office last dramatically changed file formats -- with the introduction of Office 97 -- Microsoft dropped the ball.
"When Microsoft changed the file formats in its Office 97 suite, it was late with converters for older versions of Office, and the change forced companies to do wholesale replacements of Office to get to a supportable, usually homogenous Office 97 infrastructure," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver.
"It was a big headache," remembered DeGroot. "Because the default format [of Office 97] couldn't be read by older machines, companies couldn't stage the deployment of the new Office, but had to upgrade all their installations. IT could solve the problem, but it still got a lot of calls from users. A mistake like this can suck up a lot of help desk time."
To prevent a reoccurrence the Office 97 snafu, Microsoft will create converters for Office 2000, XP, and 2003 so that those suites' applications can open, edit, and save files in Office 12 XML (Extensible Markup Language) format. In addition, Office 12 will be able to work with current .doc, .xls, and .ppt proprietary file formats for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively. And documents will automatically be saved in the file format they started in when editing began.
"I think Microsoft learned its lesson with Office 97," said DeGroot. "In general, Microsoft is well-aware of the consequences of changing the default file format to XML."
But Silver thinks Microsoft is treading on thin ice. "Changing the file formats is a big risk for Microsoft," he said. "There are lots of folks using older versions, and if they don't need XML, or don't think they do, when they assess an upgrade to Office 12, they may say, 'as long as I have to make a file format change, I might as well change to OpenOffice.org.'
DeGroot disagreed. "One could argue it's almost overdue considering how much documents have changed," he said. "I think that this is a good move. Ten years down the road, you could be really grateful that that document you created in 2007 is in XML, because you'll be able to access that information and more easily search for it."
"The problem right now is that users don't have any reason to move to Office 12 other than XML because Microsoft hasn't said anything else," argued Silver. "All these people know is that they have a reason to be worried because of the change to XML."
The analysts had several recommendations for enterprises as the move toward Office 12 shapes up. (The first beta of Office 12 is expected in the fall of 2005.) Silver advised companies to plan on deploying converters within three months of Office 12 availability "to ensure minimal disruption if someone sends a user a file in the new format." He also recommended that enterprises with Software Assurance or Enterprise Agreement plans request a feature list from Microsoft to help with renewal decisions if those agreements are to expire soon.
DeGroot, on the other hand, told users it would be smart to make sure all current installations of Office -- no matter what the version -- are updated with all available patches and service packs before rolling out Office 12.
"Overall, I think XML in Office 12 will be a net gain for users," said DeGroot. "I think it's fair to say that Office 12 looks like the first system where XML capabilities are sufficiently available in the kinds of products people use and the way people use them for XML to be useful for the first time."
Silver wouldn't make that blanket statement. "It will be a net gain for those who need the XML support to make Office a part of their business fabric," he agreed. "There are some people who have needed this.
"But for the other folks looking for a basis to move to Office 12, they just can't tell yet."