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U.K. Government Adopts ODF, but Not Microsoft's OOXML

Great Britain's government this week adopted HTML, as well as the PDF and ODF document formats, for sharing electronic files and collaborating with citizens, dealing a partial blow to Microsoft's aspirations.

Microsoft had hoped the U.K. government would also include the international standard for document formats associated with Microsoft Office files, but that did not happen. The government provided a rational for sticking with HTML, PDF and ODF (OpenDocument Format) in a notice issued on Tuesday by Francis Maude, minister for the U.K. government's Cabinet Office.

The U.K. government's decision was based on avoiding "specialist software to open or work with government documents" and allows government organizations to "choose the most suitable and cost effective applications," according to the notice. In addition, adopting those document formats would save an estimated £1.2 billion ($2.04 billion), it claimed.

The U.K. government made the move after considering more than 500 public comments. Microsoft had been one of the petitioners. The company requested that the government should support Office Open XML, or OOXML (now called "Open XML" by Microsoft), along with ODF, PDF and HTML. It even tried to rope its partners into the lobbying effort, according to a story by The Register.

OOXML was fostered by Microsoft as an open international standard apart from its older proprietary binary document formats used in the Microsoft Office productivity suite. OOXML was ratified as an ISO/IEC standard in 2006, but that standard wasn't published until 2008 (its official name is "ISO/IEC 29500:2008"). Opponents of OOXML considered the publishing delay to be part of a series of irregular practices associated with the standard's ratification. OOXML, as a 6,000-page document, had received fast-track treatment among the ISO/IEC conveners, but some participants, including IBM (which backed the rival ODF standard), raised strong objections about the conduct of the process.

Microsoft did not fully support ISO/IEC 29500:2008 in Office 2010. It promised to add support in Office 2013. Supposedly, the difficulty Microsoft had in supporting the standard in its own products was related to "Strict" and "Transitional" forms of the standard. Microsoft Office 2013 currently supports ODF 1.2, too, although a Microsoft TechNet document explains that some formatting may get lost on saving and opening files based on that format. Rival productivity suites, such as Libre Office and OpenOffice, include support for OOXML, in addition to ODF.

In a released statement, Microsoft claimed that the U.K. government's decision to support HTML, PDF and ODF, while omitting Open XML, would just be confusing to users and would stifle competition.

Microsoft notes the government’s decision to restrict its support of the file formats it uses for sharing and collaboration to just ODF and HTML.  The good news for Office users is that Office 365 and Office 2013 both have excellent support for the ODF file format, so their current and future investments in Office are safe.  In fact, Office 365 remains the only business productivity suite on the UK government’s G-Cloud that is accredited to the government’s own security classification of “Official” and which also supports ODF.  Office Online , or the Office Web Apps Server, allows users to open, edit and save ODF files in a browser. However, users of all sorts of popular modern productivity software may find the inability to use their default or preferred open format when communicating with the government confusing or restrictive. 

Microsoft believes it is unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit from the government’s decision.  We actively support a broad range of open standards, which is why (like Adobe has with the PDF file format) we now collaborate with many contributors to maintain the Open XML file format through independent and international standards bodies.  We also believe that giving users a choice of standards is an important spur to improvement, competition and consequently, innovation.  The government’s stated and laudable strategy to be cloud-first in the provision of its services to citizens depends on nurturing, not constraining such innovation.

Open standards legal expert Andy Updegrove noted in a blog post this week that the U.K. government's decision means that the use of OOXML "is neither required nor relevant" in that country. He said that Britain accomplished what Massachusetts failed to do nearly 10 years ago when it initially backed the ODF standard.

"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," Updegrove wrote. "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."

Updegrove described the U.K. Cabinet Office's decision as "the largest such commitment to date." The U.K.'s adoption of ODF will help prod Microsoft "to ensure that documents saved in ODF form will preserve their formatting with greater integrity," he added. It might help reintroduce "true competition and innovation to the office desktop," he contended.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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