Microsoft is creating opportunities for software manufacturers by adding native support for OpenDocument Format (ODF) to the next service pack for Office 2007 (full Office 2007 review here, analysts say.

Microsoft announced its intention to include native support for ODF in the forthcoming service pack, which is due out in the first six months of 2009 in the wake of continued regulatory scrutiny from the European Commission (EC) over interoperability concerns.

The EC said in a statement that it welcomes steps Microsoft takes toward genuine interoperability and that it would analyse the latest announcement to see how it affects consumers' software choices.

In January, the EC opened two new antitrust investigations against Microsoft concerning the interoperability of Windows with other software and the company's practice of bundling software products with Windows.

At least one office software maker thinks Microsoft's turnaround on ODF will mean more flexibility for software buyers. The ability to save in ODF in Microsoft Office could give users more confidence to switch to, a free open-source suite, said John McCreesh, a spokesman for

"The whole purpose of having an open standard is to give people freedom of choice," McCreesh said. "It means we have a level playing field, which is what it's all about."

Of course, those users could migrate to Microsoft from, too, McCreesh said.

A looming concern is whether Microsoft's implementation of ODF within Office will handle documents with the same or better performance as competing suites. Microsoft has been criticised for embracing a particular standard but using subtle means within its software to subvert it.

One organisation that has been particularly critical of Microsoft also welcomed the news. Wider user of ODF through Office could also give a boost to competing operating systems such as Linux, said the Free Software Foundation Europe.

"The move to support ODF, if genuine, would remove one of the most effective barriers for migration to GNU/Linux on the desktop," said spokesman Georg CF Greve.

"The Microsoft desktop monopoly would be unlikely to continue in such a situation and millions of computer users would enjoy genuine freedom of choice."

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