U.K. Cabinet Office Adopts ODF as Exclusive Standard for Sharable Documents

The U.K. Cabinet Office accomplished today what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts set out (unsuccessfully) to achieve ten years ago: it formally required compliance with the Open Document Format (ODF) by software to be purchased in the future across all government bodies. Compliance with any of the existing versions of OOXML, the competing document format championed by Microsoft, is neither required nor relevant. The announcement was made today by The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude.

Henceforth, ODF compliance will be required for documents intended to be shared or subject to collaboration. PDF/A or HTML compliance will be required for viewable government documents. The decision follows a long process that invited, and received, very extensive public input – over 500 comments in all (my comments can be found here). 

According to the announcement:

When departments have adopted these open standards:
•    citizens, businesses and voluntary organisations will no longer need specialist software to open or work with government documents
•    people working in government will be able to share and work with documents in the same format, reducing problems when they move between formats
•    government organisations will be able to choose the most suitable and cost effective applications, knowing their documents will work for people inside and outside of government

In making a decision that had been strongly opposed by Microsoft, the Cabinet Office’s decision reflects:

…the government’s policy to create a level playing field for suppliers of all sizes, with its digital by default agenda on track to make cumulative savings of £1.2 billion in this Parliament for citizens, businesses and taxpayers.

The action of the Cabinet Office is doubly significant in light of the decade-long standards war that unexpectedly erupted into public view on September 1, 2005 when a Financial Times journalist in San Francisco posted an article on line that began as follows:

The state of Massachusetts has laid out a plan to switch all its workers away from Microsoft’s Word, Excel and other desktop software applications, delivering what would be one of the most significant setbacks to the software company’s battle against open source software in its home market.

The state said on Wednesday that all electronic documents “created and saved” by state employees would have to be based on open formats, with the switch to start at the beginning of 2007.

What followed was an often contentious, vigorously fought battle that ultimately raged across multiple U.S. states as well as many countries across the world. While Massachusetts eventually abandoned its plan, a growing number of European and other local, regional and national governmental entities eventually did adopt ODF as either one, or the only, open document format required for text documents.

But the U.K. Cabinet Office is the largest such commitment to date, marking a long-delayed major victory for proponents of the standard originally developed by consortium OASIS before adoption by traditional standards bodies ISO and IEC (OOXML, based on a format developed by Microsoft and submitted to standards organization ECMA for fast track formalization and submission to ISO/IEC was subsequently adopted as well).

The adoption of only ODF – and not also OOXML, as was urged by Microsoft – is most significant for the degree of market adoption and legitimization it will necessarily lead to. Unlike OOXML, which exists in several versions in the marketplace (and was not adopted even by Microsoft in the ISO/IEC approved “strict” form until years after its adoption by those organizations), ODF exists in more settled forms.  Use of ODF-compliant software by tens of thousands of U.K. government workers will provide incentives to Microsoft to take greater pains to ensure that documents saved in ODF form will preserve their formatting with greater integrity, since many open source office suites (such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice) are available for free.

Whether other major nations will follow the U.K.’s lead remains to be seen. But many other European nations, as well as some non-European countries, have sought ways to diminish their dependence on Microsoft products in order to provide a more level playing field for their own software industries, to lower procurement costs, and to more consistently embrace open principles in procurement.

Should they follow in the footsteps of the Cabinet Office, the goal of re-introducing true competition and innovation to the office desktop may someday become a reality rather than a distant dream.

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