Perhaps the most telling public comment from Microsoft about its planned Open Document Format plug-in for Office applications came from Tom Robertson, general manager of standards and interoperability. Robertson was quoted by Computerworld as saying that the whole ODF support issue had "clouded" some customers' thoughts about productivity software.
The "customers" Robertson was likely referring to are governments, which have almost unilaterally endorsed ODF. But these customers already have access to ODF, even if they decide to stick with the Microsoft Office suite.
The OpenDocument Foundation announced in May that it planned to create its own ODF plug-in for Office, to be given first to Massachusetts state government, which is bound by law to use open data standards. Office add-ons to write any variety of non-MS formats -- from PDF to pure XML -- are available for next to nothing on the Web. And Microsoft has long let its competitors open and write to its ubiquitous proprietary file types.
So why does Microsoft now feel compelled to create a plug-in -- and post it as an open source project, no less -- when the market has always covered those bases before? As Roberston alludes, customers simply have come to expect it, and might choose to go with a cheaper Office rival if Microsoft didn't respond with what, in practical terms, is little more than a good-faith gesture.
Increasingly, Microsoft relies on feature-set as its selling point for the relatively huge expense of Microsoft Office. Redmond's interoperability manager went to great lengths this week to pitch the "full-featured" aspect of Microsoft's Open XML standard, which will be native to Office 2007.
Microsoft's ODF play has taken the bite out of some of the sharpest criticisms of Office. Now it has to convince enterprises that advanced word-processing and spreadsheet features -- which most users don't even know about -- are worth the continued expense.