Microsoft To Make Office Files More Internet-Friendly

Documents saved in XML format better suit an E-mail age in which PC users are slinging files back and forth over the Internet.
Get ready to say goodbye to .doc and hello to XML.

Starting next year, Microsoft Office will save most files in the Extensible Markup Language, quickly becoming an Internet standard. That means if PC users want to save Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files in the familiar .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats Microsoft has used since the '90s, they'll have to take an extra step.

The switch happens with the next version of the productivity suite, code-named Office 12 and due in the second half of next year. The new format will make files smaller, better protect them from corruption, and make it easier to share data with other software, Microsoft says.

"We've used the same binary file formats from Office 97 through Office 2003," says Chris Capossela, a corporate VP in Microsoft's information worker group. But the new format, which Microsoft plans to release in a test version of Office 12 due in November, better suits an E-mail age in which PC users are slinging files back and forth over the Internet. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will create XML files as their default save option--users will need to choose the "save as" command to create the old formats.

Microsoft plans to ship a free tool that lets owners of some previous versions of Office--including the newest versions in use today--read Office 12 files and another to turn large batches of documents into the new format. "They're 100% backward compatible," Capossela says.

The changes come as Microsoft is trying to reposition Office from a suite of personal-productivity apps to a set of desktop and server-side tools that let business users and IT departments more easily view data in back-end computer systems for running tasks such as accounting, sales analysis, and human-resources planning. XML can label data in documents with special tags that make them easier for other computers to understand.

Office has been able to create XML documents for several years. But the new "Office Open XML Formats" take up half as much space as Microsoft's traditional binary formats, recover better from errors, and can make life easier for PC users who create multiple documents based on repetitive data, Capossela says.

Office 12 files will also help users readily identify personal or sensitive information so businesses can strip it out of documents before they're sent outside the company. Microsoft plans to make the file format available free of charge to other software companies.

"It's a subtle, but very big deal," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group. "Even though everyone thinks they have an infinite amount of disk space these days, it's very significant when people are shipping files around via E-mail."

The last time Microsoft changed its Office file format, with the release of Office 97 eight years ago, users with older versions couldn't read new files. That appears unlikely this time, O'Kelly says. "This one will withstand even the conspiracy theorists who think Microsoft is trying to subvert the file format."

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