The Standards Blog

UK Cabinet Office Signals Move Towards Open Source Office Suites

OpenDocument and OOXML

It was ten years ago that the CIO of Massachusetts rattled the desktop world by announcing that the Executive Agencies of the Commonwealth would henceforth license only office suite software that complied with the OpenDocument Format. The shock waves that followed were attributable to the fact that while the open source OpenOffice office suite was built around that standard, the dominant product – Microsoft’s venerable Office suite did not.

Yesterday, the UK Cabinet Office blew some life back into the embers left behind by what  was one of the most epic standards wars in history (you can follow that saga from the beginning here and the first five chapters of a book I started to write about it here). 

Much has changed since 2004, including the upgrading of Office to comply with the ODF standard, as well as another XML document format standard – OOXML – launched by Microsoft itself and eventually (like ODF before it) adopted by ISO.

Thus it was that while the announcement a few months ago that ODF would be added to the list of standards approved by the UK Cabinet Office for procurement elicited memories of that saga, it did not sound the alarums that battle was about to be waged again.

That changed yesterday, when Francis Maude, a senior UK government minister, revealed that the Cabinet Office has more in mind than ensuring that UK citizens will be able to download documents in ODF form, thus providing product choice to that end of the document equation.  Rather, Maude stated that the government must free itself from control by the “tiny oligopoly” of software vendors that “dominates the marketplace." More particularly, he stated that “I want to see a greater range of software used, so civil servants have access to the information they need and can get their work done without having to buy a particular brand of software.”

The way to achieve that end, he explained, would be through mandatory compliance by vendors with specific standards:

Technical standards for document formats may not sound like the first shot in a revolution. But be in no doubt: the adoption of compulsory standards in government threatens to break open Whitehall's lock-in to proprietary formats. In turn we will open the door for a host of other software providers.

The stakes are substantial, given that the Cabinet Office has spent £200 million since 2010 on Office licenses and the fact that the obvious alternative would be a free open source alternative, such as LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Nor would such a move be unprecedented as the City of Munich recently completed such a conversion (of almost 15,000 desktops) , saving over $16 million in the near term alone.

It’s important, however, to be clear about what Maude did and did not say. What he did do was to propose that individual purchase decisions must henceforth have an element of choice. What he did not do was to announce the commencement of a wholesale conversion plan. So what in fact may follow?

The cynical reaction would be to say that when the dust settles, agencies subject to and benefiting from any such Cabinet Office procurement rules will simply have increased their leverage in their negotiations with Microsoft. And indeed, there has been a history over the last decade of intentions to switch not being followed by actual conversions.

The reasons have been several, including not only Microsoft’s natural advantages and fiercely competitive reaction, but also the fact that the source alternatives need to be robust enough to provide viable alternatives. Unfortunately, at the time Massachusetts sparked the first battle, Sun Microsystems controlled the OpenOffice code and trademark, and exercised so much control that other companies that should have been enthusiastic allies – notably IBM, but also Motorola, Oracle, Google, and others – were more measured in their support, and did not send anywhere near the number of engineers to support the effort that might otherwise have been the case.

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Since then, the OpenOffice code base split, with most of the independent developers moving to the project developing the fork: LibreOffice. The original OpenOffice effort, which moved to Oracle at the time of its acquisition of Sun, was later moved to the Apache Foundation after Oracle decommitted, where its work continues today.

How much effort goes into each of those efforts will remain tied to the appeal of their software to the marketplace.  If downloads are principally being made by individuals who are simply trying to get a good office suite for nothing, the developers of few enterprise users are likely to be deployed to support these efforts.  Indeed, while Google moved to make its GoogleDocs suite compliant with ODF while the results of the ODF-OOXML were still in doubt, it has since then dropped compliance.

On the other hand, if it appears that a real market for such software could develop, then things could change markedly, just as they did a decade ago. The reason is that where markets emerge, the opportunity to make money follows. Just as Red Hat sells support, software and services around the free Linux kernel (and as Sun sold a supported version of OpenOffice), new players could enter the marketplace, providing the type of robust support that would encourage government users to make a switch.

The result would be a classic “virtuous cycle,” where quality attracts demand, which in turn attracts more competitors, which in turn leads to more alternatives and lower prices, which drives more demand, and so on. But in order for such a cycle to start, a critical level of demand has to kick in first.

Will that happen this time around? We’ll obviously have to wait and see, but the times (at least in Europe) are auspicious, with EU leaders seeing an opportunity in the shift to Cloud Computing to help European vendors, large and small, regain market share in the ICT space. The EU has been announcing new initiatives on a regular basis to move the needle in this direction, and at the same time, procurement budgets throughout the region remain tight. If successful conversions are made, further governments (and eventually private sector users) can be expected to take the same direction.

If that occurs, the big winners will be, well, everyone, whether they remain users of Microsoft products or move to a competing alternative.  Why? Because for the great majority of the desktop age, there has been no meaningful competition in that space. The result has been a woeful lack of innovation, leaving those (like me) who spend their lives laboring behind keyboards to watch wistfully while fierce competition brings new jaw-dropping innovations to mobile devices, cameras, and much more on an almost weekly basis. How I would love to see the magic that might be wrought if the same type of effort was brought to the desktop.

If you would like to weigh in the subject, you can do so at the Cabinet Office page, maintained for that purpose.

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