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Maybe it’s all part of a kinder, gentler Microsoft; or maybe it’s something else. In the latest example of Redmond’s increase in openness, the “Evil Empire” in an announcement last week said it backs the addition of the Open Document Format to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards list and will add native compatibility for ODF and Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF). The changes will come in a service pack for the Office suite sometime in the first half of 2009.

Microsoft also has joined the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS)—the group maintaining ODF—and will assist with work on subsequent releases of the open format developed by Sun Microsystems with key contributions from IBM. “We have listened to our customers, and they have told us they want choice, they want interoperability, they want innovation,” said Tom Robertson, general manager for Interoperability and Standards at Microsoft. Many companies, including Adobe, CA, Google, Intel, Novell, Oracle and Red Hat, now contribute resources to ODF.

According to reports, Office Service Pack 2 will include support for saving files as PDF 1.5 and the PDF/A variant for archiving, ODF 1.1 and XPS, Microsoft’s own XML Paper Specification. Conversion from Office file formats to those specs is now supported through plug-ins. ODF and PDF/A are ISO standards, as is Microsoft’s Open Office XML (OOXML), which got fast-tracked to ISO approval by first going through Ecma International, a European standards body.

Paradoxically, Office 2007 supports an earlier version of the ISO-approved OOXML, and will not be in sync until the release of “Office 14,” the code name for its next major release sometime next year.