Comment Deadline on UK Cabinet Office “ODF Only” Policy is February 26

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

As you may be aware, the UK Cabinet Office has been engaged in the long and careful development of an updated open standards policy to guide government procurement of ICT goods and services. A few weeks ago, a senior government minister received great attention when he announced that the Cabinet Office hoped to give preference in the future to purchasing open source office suite software implementing the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard.

This intention, however, is not a done deal. Rather, the rules that would establish this preference are currently only in the proposal stage, and all elements of that proposal can be changed or deleted, based upon comments posted at the Cabinet Office’s public Standards Hub Web site by businesses, citizens and others. And the deadline for commenting on those proposals is fast approaching: February 26.

The summary relevant to document formats reads as follows:

Sharing or collaborating with government documents:  Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing and editing documents. Officials within government departments also need to work efficiently, sharing and collaborating with documents. Users must not have costs imposed upon them due to the format in which editable government information is shared or requested.

The specific standards that the proposal recommends for exclusive use by the agencies subject to Cabinet Office rules are as follows: 

  • HTML 4.01 – ISO/IEC 15445:2000 Information technology – Document description and processing languages
    HyperText Markup Language (HTML)
  • HTML5
  •  ODF 1.2 – Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) Version 1.2

(CSV and TXT are also permissible)

Notable by its absence from the above list is OOXML, the competing document standard that Microsoft launched back in 2004 when it became evident that ODF would be submitted for adoption by ISO/IEC as the approved global standard for office suites and other documentary purposes.

While adoption of two standards to serve the same purpose is not unknown, it is not generally a desired outcome. In the case of ODF, the primary reason given by Microsoft to endorse a second standard that it had developed for its own future use was that otherwise the “billions and billions” of documents already created using Microsoft software might become inaccessible.

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Ultimately, OOXML as well as ODF were approved. Here are some of the events that followed:

•    It was years before Microsoft fully complied with either the ODF or the OOXML standards

•    Support for ODF by those companies that had championed its adoption, such as IBM and Google, abated

•    Because there was no economic incentive to do so, neither ODF or OOXML became ubiquitously adopted

•    Extensions to each standard by Microsoft in its own standards made it more difficult for competing programs to bridge the gaps

•    No new commercial contender arose to challenge Office in the marketplace, due to the enormous advantages enjoyed by Microsoft as a result of its installed base of customers

•    After Oracle acquired Sun, it abandoned active support for both the open source and the commercially supported versions of OpenOffice

•    OpenOffice was transferred by Oracle to the Apache Foundation

•    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

•    Efforts by governments to specify ODF were invariably challenged by Microsoft

•    Microsoft ended up abandoning support for its own “billions and billions” of prior documents

•    Innovation in office software continued to be absent for yet another decade.

In short, Microsoft succeeded in its objective of thwarting the widespread adoption of a standard that might have made it easier and more attractive for meaningful competition to arise that might threaten one of the two principal pillars of its financial existence.

So here we are, a decade later, with no greater protection from the dangers of documents becoming inaccessible in the future (because OOXML has not become universally adopted; because Microsoft continues to add extensions outside the standard; and because Microsoft can decide to abandon its own document base yet again, any time it chooses to do so).

But we are also at a point where a different course could be taken, if the UK holds firm, and if other governments elect to follow in its path. If momentum were to build, then there would be many significant results, including the following:

•    There would be real incentives for new competitors to arise, because migration to a new product would be more feasible for existing Word users, and because the ongoing exchange of documents between Office users and those using other ODF compliant office suites would be more seamles.

•    Many more individual developers would be likely to flock to the support of LibreOffice, as well as to the various other open source suites that were launched in prior decades.

•    Actual competition would arise, resulting in Word becoming a better product as well, just as Explorer did when challenged by Mozilla.  Real price competition would return to the office suite marketplace as well, not only because LibreOffice and other open source office suites would become more attractive, but because commercial competitors could offer lightweight suites that leave out the vast percentage of Word features that non-power users never use.

As might be expected, Microsoft has been advocating vigorously to have OOXML added to the list of approved standards in the UK proposal. See, for example, a recent posting at the Microsoft Partner Network UK Blog titled: Government open standards consultation will likely impact all of us. Make sure your voice is heard by 26th February  (the post includes links to a letter that Microsoft has sent to its business partners, as well as a link to its own initial comments to the Cabinet Office). In this blog entry, it argues as follows:

An important current proposal relates to sharing and collaborating with government documents. The government proposes to mandate Open Document format (ODF) and exclude the most widely supported and used open standard for document formats, Open XML (OOXML). We believe this will cause problems for citizens and businesses who use office suites which don’t support ODF, including many people who do not use a recent version of Microsoft Office or, for example, Pages on iOS and even Google Docs. Microsoft Office has supported ODF since 2007, but adoption of OOXML has been more widespread amongst other products than ODF.

The above statements can only be made, of course, because of choices that Microsoft made ten years ago, and not those of anyone else. Indeed, those working to advance LibreOffice and OpenOffice spend significant amounts of time trying to improve compatibility with Office that could better be spent making their own offerings more useful.

The vital point to make is that if OOXML had never been adopted by ISO, or if governments had followed the initial lead of Massachusetts and specified only ODF, then we would not be in a position where Microsoft can make the statements above in an effort to perpetuate the status quo indefinitely into the future.

If we are ever to have innovation and competition (including price competition) in office suite software, then a change to ODF, and only ODF has to happen. That has to happen somewhere, sometime, by someone with market leverage before the momentum can build.

Why not now, and in the UK?

If what I’ve written above resonates with you, then I would suggest that you consider making your own opinions known to the UK Cabinet Office, which will need all of the support that it can get from the public if it is to be able to hold firm in its intentions. If you decide to comment, the first step is to register at the CabinetOffice Standards Hub site.  And remember: the deadline is February 26, Greenwich time.

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