The Standards Blog

My Comments as Posted to the UK Cabinet Office Standards Hub (now it's your turn)

OpenDocument and OOXML

Updated: The deadline for filing comments has been extended to 1700 GMT on Friday, February 28

Last week I highlighted the fact that Microsoft was urging its business partners to comment at the British Cabinet Office's Standards Hub on a standards-related proposal. That proposal would limit government procurement to office software that complied with the ISO ODF standard, but makes no mention of the ISO OOXML standard promoted by Microsoft. I also noted that anyone could comment on the proposal, and that the deadline for comments would close on February 26, Greenwich time. I closed by urging readers to let their opinions on the subject be heard.

Having so urged, I could hardly forego offering my own comments as well, and now I have done exactly that. What follows is the text I uploaded there, and perhaps it will help motivate you to contribute as well if you have not already done so.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this proposal. While I am not a UK citizen, I believe that approving this proposal is an important issue not only for the people of the United Kingdom, but for citizens throughout the world as well.

I offer this opinion with particular reference to the failure of a similar effort launched by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the United States, a decade ago. At that time, although under different circumstances (OOXML had not yet been submitted to ECMA), the governor’s administration proposed requiring all 50,000 Executive Agency desktops to be made conformant with the OASIS OpenDocument Format standard, the foundation for the current ISO standard.

A global standards war ensued, the upshot of which was that both ODF and OOXML became approved as ISO standards. Under substantial proprietary pressure, Massachusetts backed off its policy, adding OOXML to the approved standards list.

It is interesting to consider what might have happened if Massachusetts had held firm. The hope of many was that the following result would have transpired:

•    Existing open source projects, such as OpenOffice and KDE (there were quite a few others) would have become energized, leading to rapid advances in their software
•    Proprietary vendors would have seen sufficient likelihood of taking market share from the incumbent that real competition would have returned to a marketplace from which it had been absent for decades
•    Consumers would rapidly have been offered a rich range of choices – in price (including free), in functionalities, and in platforms
•    The same surge of innovation that has swept the world in camera technology, in Web browsers, in mobile platforms, in social media, and in so much more would have blossomed in office suite software as well.

Sadly, none of this in fact occurred. Instead, unlike all other areas of technology, document software has remained essentially stagnant, and public and private documents remain vulnerable to becoming inaccessible within a shockingly brief period of time. 

What did happen after Massachusetts reversed course, following the resignation of two CIOs as a direct result of opposition raised on this issue, was far less beneficial to the public:

•    It was years before Microsoft fully complied with either the ODF or the OOXML standards in the forms in which they were adopted by ISO
•    Support for ODF by those companies that had championed its adoption following the Massachusetts announcement, such as IBM and Google, abated
•    Because there was no economic incentive to do so, neither ODF nor OOXML became ubiquitously adopted, meaning that no documents could be seamlessly exchanged outside the ecosystem comprising Microsoft and its business partners
•    Extensions to each standard developed by Microsoft and implemented in Office made it more difficult for competing programs that did implement ODF, such as OpenOffice and LibreOffice, to bridge the gaps
•    No new commercial contender arose to challenge Office in the marketplace
•    After Oracle acquired Sun, it abandoned active support for both the open source and the commercially supported versions of OpenOffice, which was the most fully-featured open source competitor to Microsoft Office at the time
•    OpenOffice was transferred by Oracle to the Apache Foundation, where it receives a tiny fraction of the support that is dedicated to supporting and maintaining Microsoft Office, and has virtually no professional marketing or sales support
•    The OpenOffice community forked, with most of the community developers moving to work on LibreOffice, which is hosted by a new foundation formed for that purpose. While the supporting community is vigorous, it is similarly limited in its resources
•    Unlike projects such as Linux, proprietary companies send very few, if any, of their staff to support open source office suite projects
•    Efforts by other governments to specify ODF have invariably been challenged by Microsoft
•    Microsoft ended up abandoning support for the same “billions and billions” of legacy documents that it had previously claimed must be protected through adoption of OOXML instead of ODF

But that does not mean that governments, pledged to advance the welfare of their citizens and endowed with the power of very substantial procurement budgets, should not employ that market power to restore competition to the marketplace. If the UK holds firm in its resolve, it will reenergize open source projects and incentivize proprietary entities to enter the document software market, just as occurred (briefly) following the Massachusetts announcement a decade ago. Except that this time, sustained positive results would follow, including the high likelihood that many other national, state and local public bodies would follow its lead.

What would those results be? I would submit that they go far beyond simply cheaper software and wider choice. The entirety of culture, scientific and personal advancement, and the ability of societies to function is dependent upon the capture, sharing, and preservation of the written word. Today, the great majority of humanity does that with Microsoft Office.

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But only to the extent that Office allows. There is a wave of awareness today – and in this regard, the UK is a global leader – in the vital importance of increasing “openness” in all of its forms: open data, open science, open source, open standards, and more. Necessarily, anything that advances and facilitates the free sharing of data and knowledge advances and facilitates the growth and success of humanity across the entire globe.

But consider the constraints in which we live today: producing more than rudimentary Web pages is beyond the expertise of all but those that have taken the time to learn web development techniques. All others must use the prevailing package of software that requires you to buy and open a different program to do each task – create a spreadsheet or a set of slides, or a document, or a database.

When we do open those tools, we not only see essentially what we have seen for over twenty years, but we still cope with bugs that have never been eliminated (how many times have you clicked no to “save changes?” when all you did was open and close a document)?

We also have no choice but to cope with the lack of some features that would have been added twenty years ago in the presence of any semblance of competition at all -  such as the ability to “show changes” in PowerPoint slides – a rudimentary capability added to Word decades ago, and a function that virtually every user of PowerPoint has needed at some point.

Imagine what we might be able to do today if true interoperability and competition had sprung from the decision of Massachusetts ten years ago? Not only could anyone exchange documents with anyone using technology of their choice at a price they could afford, but anyone could as easily create and publish a Web page from their office suite as they could send a document to a printer. And any government worker could create a document that they had every assurance would still be accessible a year or a century later.

Indeed, anyone could do things using their knowledge and their talents that we are no more capable of predicting today than we were able ten years ago to imagine what we use our multi-featured mobile devices for today.

All of these worthy goals could become possible if a single, elementary change were to occur: the universal adoption of a single standard that allows documents to be exchanged with their formatting and other details intact. And all that it takes to prevent it from happening is for OOXML to remain co-equal with ODF.

If we are ever to have real innovation and actual competition (including price competition) in office suite software, then a change to ODF, and only ODF, must happen. It must be made to happen somewhere, sometime, by someone with sufficient market leverage to allow the momentum to begin to build.

Why not let that time be now?

On behalf of citizens everywhere, I hope that the UK Cabinet Office will remain resolute in support of its proposal. If it does, a decade from now the UK Cabinet Office will be remembered, not as a government agency that, like Massachusetts, bowed to proprietary pressure, but as a leader that not only had the vision to see the brighter future that is possible, but had the courage to persevere and make that future become real.

Respectfully yours,

Andrew Updegrove

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