UK Cabinet Office Says “Hello, You Must be Going” to ODF

We will never reject an incoming editable document in ODF format. Asking someone to resend a document in a closed proprietary format is akin to bad manners - Home Office OpenDocument Format Adoption Plan

Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going.
I'm glad I came, but just the same, I must be going
- Groucho Marx, Animal Crackers

Technological evolution is famous for obsoleting wonders created just a few years before. Sometimes new developments moot the fiercest battles between competitors as well. That seemed to be the case last week, when Microsoft announced its Azure Cloud Switch (ACS), a cross-platform modular operating system for data center networking built on…(wait for it)…Linux, the open source software assailed by the company’s prior CEO as a communist cancer.
It also saw the UK Cabinet Office announce its detailed plans for transitioning to the support of the OpenDocument Format (ODF), a document format that was just as fiercely opposed by Microsoft in the most hard-fought standards war in decades.  But at the same time, the Cabinet Office announced its commitment to work towards making document formats as close to obsolete as possible.

While Microsoft’s ACS announcement immediately drew significant notice, the Cabinet Office document release did not. The most obvious reason is because the U.K. had previously announced that it would support ODF and not OOXML, Microsoft’s competing XML-based standard for editable documents. But there’s also this: for many types of users, the age of the document is waning, and with it the power and importance of the office suites that create them. Just as AM radio, for decades the only broadcast medium known to most users in the U.S., became increasingly irrelevant when FM-based stations became ubiquitous.

But I’m getting ahead of the story here, and perhaps ahead of readers who do not have familiarity with what ODF is and what that epic standards battle was all about. So here’s a brief historical review.

Just over ten years ago, the CIO of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts shocked the IT world by announcing that the 50,000 desktops of the Massachusetts Executive Agencies would be transitioned to support an interoperability framework based upon a list of standards that included document format specifications.
While adopting an interoperability framework was forward looking for the times, it was not in itself astonishing. But the omission of Microsoft’s preferred specification (OOXML) for editable documents was. Instead, the Commonwealth endorsed ODF, a specification developed by OASIS.
A multi-year, epic battle ensued that would take far more time to recount than time and space allow (indeed, you can find the first five chapters of a book I began recounting that saga here, and hundreds of blog posts here). Suffice it to say that the stakes were high, the emotions higher, and the tactics of some combatants sometimes distressingly low. Sad to say, over time the positions of the major IT companies that had promoted ODF shifted, and with those shifts, their support waned. By 2008, ODF had become largely a community cause rather than a commercial conflict. And the resources of the community could not come close to countering the level of support that Microsoft could place behind what continued to be one of its two largest profit centers.
But the ODF movement never died, especially in Europe, where cities, agencies, provinces, and sometimes entire countries pledged their support to ODF. Most prominently, the UK Cabinet Office carried the torch, and that almost brings us (in the briefest way imaginable) up to date.

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The “almost” has to do with the many open source office suites that supported ODF, providing real alternatives to Microsoft Office. Chief among them was OpenOffice, a fully-featured suite supported by Sun Microsystems. But Sun was acquired by Oracle, and Oracle decommitted from the project (among others).  The supporting developer community forked as well, with most of the long term programmers forming The Document Foundation to maintain a new version called LibreOffice. With this new independence, new energy was brought to bear, and LibreOffice surged forward in a way that OpenOffice had not for years.
But at the same time, the IT world was changing. When Word initially won over the document desktop from WordPerfect, text lived almost exclusively in documents that were printed and then exchanged by hand, by mail and by fax. Today, to the extent that text is placed in a document created by an office suite at all, it is transmitted and archived electronically, and is unlikely to ever be committed to paper at all. The average person today has little reason to create a document in her private life at all any more. When they do, it may be Google Drive they turn to rather than a program that lives on their lap or desktop. And if they do use Word, the program they use may also be a free version they access in the Cloud from a mobile device. Indeed, many people under the age of 30 today not only do not own a printer, but they don’t own a copy (proprietary or open source) of a word processing program at all.
And that does finally bring us up to date, and to the U.K. Cabinet Office’s ODF Adoption Plan, which early on reads as follows: 

1.1 Open Document Format in context: digital by default


This ODF adoption plan should be considered in the wider context of other open standards for information, and the ambition to make services digital by default, accessible entirely through a web browser.
This means that our first preference is to avoid documents wherever possible, moving information for reading, collaboration and transactions online using HTML5 as the open standard. This should be possible for a large majority of user needs.
So there you have it: the U.K. Cabinet Office views ODF not as a road to information freedom, but a necessary tool on the road to a digital future that does not include “documents” in the historical sense at all. So does that represent the end of the ODF story? Is this just another example of victory coming within reach only when the laurels no longer matter?
Not quite. While it’s true that more and more information of value will be fixed in HTML pages than paper ones, governments and citizens actively exchange information far more than they do editable documents, and the U.K. approach appropriately reflects this reality. In a wider context, the document paradigm will remain essential for all manner of purposes for the indefinite future, and especially for high value information that needs to be structured for usability and maintained for the long term. Absent common, transparent, consensus-controlled formats, the accessibility of that information will be in jeopardy. And without competition in office suites, the likelihood of further innovation in the tools that create and store that information will plummet.
If there is a silver lining to the U.K. Cabinet’s intended direction, it may be the degree to which it indicates the devaluation of traditional office suite software. If that process continues to proceed apace, perhaps we may see another surprising Microsoft announcement, this time proclaiming enthusiastic, rather than grudging, support for ODF instead of Linux, because it is finally in its own self-interest to do so.
Should that ever happen, it will be a strange day indeed for grizzled ODF warriors. But it will also be a great day for software freedom and for the preservation of the essential records of society. Here’s hoping that day is not too far distant.
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