Microsoft is planning to add support for the XML Paper Specification (XPS) in its forthcoming Office 12 software.
XPS is a Microsoft-developed standard for electronic paper similar to Adobe's PDF. Unlike a text document or web page, a PDF or XPS file is displayed identically on every computer.
Adobe's PDF also offers advanced management features that, for instance, allow the document to expire after a certain period or prevent it from being printed.
XPS will be supported in Windows Vista, the forthcoming version of Microsoft's operating system due in the second half of next year. Vista will feature a bundled XPS reader that is required to open the documents.
Microsoft also claims that XPS will allow for better printing quality, making colours on a PC monitor resemble more closely the colours on a print out.
In addition to an XPS export function, Office 12 will support Adobe's PDF format, Microsoft unveiled earlier this month.
The XPS standard is designed as a direct competitor to the widely adopted PDF standard, according to Rob Helm, director of research at analyst firm Directions on Microsoft.
"PDF is turning into an important document format and Microsoft wants to influence the document format," he said.
"It's an important capability of the Windows platform, just like a media player or browser. Microsoft has concluded that it cannot leave it in control of an outside company."
Being able to control the format gives Microsoft products such as Windows and Office an edge over competing products. It also allows the company to develop additional products to manage and edit XPS documents.
But success for the Microsoft standard is far from assured, Helm warned. Third-party software developers will have to support the technology for it to become widely adopted, and printer manufacturers will have to build in support to enable the high quality prints.
"Those announcements are going to have to come pretty soon," said Helm. "If [the developers] do not start getting on board with XPS by 2006, it might be effectively stillborn and PDF will remain the standard."