Alright, some of you have already heard about me complaining about Microsoft trying to lock up the Office file formats by using encryption (and the Palladium initiative). Now, there is word in an article from CNet that Microsoft has applied for patents in Europe and New Zealand that may block other programs from reading and writing the XML-based file formats without an explicit license from the company.
I've already discussed some of these issues in the past. Microsoft adopted XML as an internal file format for the latest Office products in order to simplify their own upgrade and interoperability issues. However, the problem with XML is that it is a highly structured format and is easily understood by other programs. This means that not only is it easy for Microsoft programs to read and write the formats, but third-party applications can do the same.
I had previously surmised (and I was not alone) that Microsoft was attempting to use their security initiative to force hardware into computers that would just about guarantee that other programs couldn't grab Word and Excel data before it is encrypted. By using this mechanism, the folks at Microsoft could lock up the format using a virtual padlock instead of the obscurity of the file formats that has been the mechanism they have used in the past.
However, the patents here are more interesting. Now, I haven't had a chance to review the applications myself, so I don't know what they really say, but the "experts" contacted by CNet have interpreted the applications as providing protection for the mechanism for storing word processing and spreadsheet documents using XML. If this holds, Microsoft's formats may immediately become read-only by other programs, unless the company grants a license to the user or developer.
In the end of the day, anything that locks up Microsoft Word and Excel formats will be a competitive issue for the rest of the software industry. At this point, most of the word processing and spreadsheet work done is done in Microsoft products (just look at any corporate hard drive). It is only by importing and exporting these formats that third-party software (such as Apple's AppleWorks and Sun's StarOffice) can coexist.
For now, it appears that we may be safe, and the fact that StarOffice (and OpenOffice) already use XML to store these types of data may mean that we will be safe for the future. However, don't be surprised if Microsoft continues to seek out ways to control not only the operating system market, but what software you can use on your data.