Sun Microsystems has created software that translates between Microsoft Office 2003's file format, and Open Document Format for XML (ODF). The plug-in lets people who use computers tailored for the disabled access documents written in ODF.

A preview of the software, called StarOffice 8 Conversion Technology, is expected to be available in mid-February, with a final release on Sun's Web site by the middle of June. The software enables two-way conversion between Microsoft Office 2003 and ODF, a standard format approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for office documents.

Certain applications and devices that use assistive technologies - such as screen readers for the blind and technologies that allow people who are quadriplegic to operate a keyboard - come with drivers that are compatible with Microsoft Word 2003 or earlier, said Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun. Vendors developing the assistive technologies have reverse-engineered Office 2003 interfaces to create the applications and devices, he said.

"Right now our focus is to ensure that people using assistive devices are able to join in with OpenDocument workflows," Phipps said. "Because Microsoft hasn't published interfaces for those devices to use, they are all hard-wired to Office 2003 and their users can't migrate to other software."

Currently the state of Massachusetts, which is in the midst of a project migrating all office documents to ODF, is using the converter. Sun said it eventually plans to offer the converter for versions of Office that are earlier than 2003, and possibly for Office 2007, the newest version that was released last month.

To create the converter, Sun built a library from OpenOffice.org that provides the same file conversions that are found in the OpenOffice.org and StarOffice productivity suites, Phipps said. Sun then added ODF support as a file format to all the places in Word using that library.

Sun is not the only company that offers software to do ODF translation. IBM, which along with Sun is one of the most fervent supporters of ODF, has developed APIs (application programming interfaces) that specifically enable assistive technologies to talk to ODF-based applications. Through Project Missouri, IBM developed APIs called iAccessible2 that make it easy for visuals in ODF-based applications to be interpreted by screen readers that reproduce that information verbally.

Microsoft, which does not support ODF natively in Microsoft Office, has funded the development of software that offers two-way conversion between the default format in Office 2007, Open XML and ODF. The software, called the ODF Translator, was made available in 1.0 form last week on SourceForge.net. However, Microsoft did not include native support for ODF in its Office 2007 software, though it supports 30 other file formats in that suite.

Microsoft hopes Open XML will follow the same path as ODF and be approved as an ISO standard; the file format is currently under consideration by the organisation. However, Open XML is having trouble getting through the ISO approval process because certain countries are unhappy with the way Microsoft submitted it, according to sources familiar with the process.