updated 6/2/2005 8:59:22 AM ET 2005-06-02T12:59:22

Microsoft Corp. announced Wednesday that the next version of its Office software will use Internet-friendly XML technology as the default file format for documents created in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.  The new format will make it easier for other programs to read Office documents, an improvement the software titan says is aimed at boosting workers' productivity.

XML, short for eXtensible Markup Language, is designed for sharing diverse data across different systems with a uniform appearance.  Previously, Office saved files in a format that doesn't always translate well when opened in other programs.

The current version, Office 2003, already supports XML but some users have complained that it is clunky and documents don't always translate well from that format either.

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Dan Leach, a spokesman for the Redmond, Wash.-based company, said the new Microsoft Office Open XML Formats will be published royalty-free and will differ from the Office 2003 version in two main ways.

First, the file sizes will be much smaller, letting people send files as e-mail attachments more easily.  Also, within a single document, the new XML format will store text, charts, images and other chunks of data as separate components.  That will make it easier to access the data and recover undamaged parts of any files that get corrupted, Leach said.

"Making XML the default Office file format is, for me, the culmination of a 35-year dream," Charles F. Goldfarb, the inventor of the markup language technology, said in a statement released by Microsoft.

"In 1970 we had just one system that could share documents between an editor, a back-end database and a publishing package.  Now Microsoft is enabling hundreds of millions of people to routinely create XML that can interoperate with every kind of back-end system and Web service," Goldfarb said.

Skeptics say Microsoft traditionally hasn't had a great reputation for openness — and they're not sure if that will change.  "If they really want to open their format from a user perspective, why aren't they using ... other existing open formats instead of coming up with a new set of formats that are not totally open and will create a lot of issues for their users?" said Richard Carriere, general manager for office productivity at Corel Corp., which makes the WordPerfect Office productivity suite.

Leach contends that anyone who's familiar with existing XML formats will have no trouble learning Microsoft's version, which is due when Office 12 hits stores, expected in the second half of next year.

"If they did move to a standardized format, they might make themselves more vulnerable to open-source alternatives," said Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research.

Microsoft said it will start talking about details of the new XML format at next week's TechEd conference in Orlando.

Overall, Murphy said he thinks Microsoft is making a smart move by sharpening it focus on XML.  "Microsoft is trying to make itself more appealing by making itself more open to integration with other systems," Murphy said.  "Microsoft is doing this as a way to protect its presence on the desktop."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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