Microsoft is loosening licensing rules on Office 2003 formats in order to get around new "open standard" restrictions to be adopted by the US state of Massachusetts, according to a state official.

The move puts Microsoft on a better footing to compete against open-source applications and non-proprietary document formats. Governments around the world have begun to reconsider the use of proprietary formats, which usually lock them into using particular applications and may hinder archiving efforts.

Microsoft Office formats have become a de facto standard, one of the factors making it difficult for organisations to use alternative applications.

Massachusetts has already instituted a software purchasing policy designed to increase competition between open source and proprietary software, and is planning to extend its policy to particular formats. Microsoft formats are likely to be included in the list of "open formats" supported by the policy, Eric Kriss, Massachusetts' secretary of administration and finance, told attendees at a Friday meeting of the Massachusetts Software Council.

Microsoft told the state it is planning to modify the licensing scheme around its proprietary, patented, XML-based document formats, Kriss said, and as a result Massachusetts is planning to support the formats. Adobe's pdf format will also be supported, Kriss said, according to reports in industry journal CRN and the Boston Business Journal.

The state is also supporting such basic formats as txt (text) and rtf (rich text format), and is in discussions with the Oasis standards body and, which makes an open-source competitor to Microsoft Office. However, support for Microsoft will make it more difficult for alternative formats to benefit from Massachusetts' open-standard policy.

Some governments, such as the City of Munich in Germany, are switching to open-source software as a way of freeing themselves from dependency on a single software company. However, the widespread use of proprietary formats means that even such open-source users must still support proprietary applications or open-source applications capable of reading and writing those formats. Some organisations, for example, run an open-source operating system such as Linux on the desktop, but stick with Microsoft Office via Windows emulation.

Open Office ditches Macs

The open-source productivity suite is one of the major alternatives to Microsoft Office, but the project revealed last week that development has stopped on a version customised for Mac OS X.

The project currently distributes a Mac version using the X11 graphics engine, which requires users to download and install X11 capabilities in addition to the application itself. A version using the Mac's native Quartz and Aqua graphics was originally planned, but work has effectively stopped, developer Edward Peterlin said in a message last week. "No engineering work has been performed on Quartz or Aqua development within the project since mid 2003," he wrote.

He attributed the situation to "various licensing, political, and fundamental engineering difficulties" and said the Mac version would likely continue to depend on X11. This allows it to be developed alongside other Unix versions, sharing their look and feel and ensuring greater stability.

By contrast, Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit last week announced several product updates at the Macworld Conference, including its plans for the upcoming release of the Mac OS X Tiger system.