Analysis

Microsoft attacks UK government decision to adopt ODF for document formats

Bryan Glick

Microsoft has attacked the UK government’s decision to adopt ODF as its standard document format, saying it is “unclear” how UK citizens will benefit.

The Cabinet Office announced its new policy yesterday, whereby Open Document Format (ODF) is immediately established as the standard for sharing documents across the public sector, with PDF and HTML also acceptable when viewing documents.

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The decision was a rejection of Microsoft’s preference for Open XML (OOXML), the standard used by its Word software, which remains the dominant wordprocessor in government.

“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,” said a spokesman for the software giant in a statement to Computer Weekly.

“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,” it added

“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.”

Microsoft has heavily lobbied the government throughout the three-year process that led to its decision to adopt ODF. The company has never suggested OOXML should be the only standard, but has recommended that government adopt both ODF and OOXML.

Minutes of meetings of the Technical Standards Panel that advised the Cabinet Office were also published yesterday, showing that OOXML was discussed as a possible standard, but was rejected because ODF better met the criteria for open standards as defined by the UK government.

“The chair asked LH [Linda Humphries, open standards lead at the Government Digital Service] to explain why ODF was chosen rather than another format such as Office Open XML, also known as OOXML,” said the minutes.

“LH explained that the decision was based on the Open Standards Principles and the UK government definition of an open standard. Both ODF and OOXML, were considered but ODF better met the criteria.

“For OOXML, there were concerns relating to the vendor independence and market support criteria - particularly with differences between transitional OOXML and strict OOXML conformity.”

OOXML is currently available in two versions – “strict”, which conforms to an international standard but is only available in Microsoft Word; and “transitional”, which is more widely used but is the default format used in Word.

The panel also discussed whether it would be feasible to choose two standards for sharing documents, as it has done with viewing documents, but this was also rejected because of the difficulties ensuring interoperability.

“The chair asked the Panel to consider whether multiple standards would be appropriate for document formats. Following discussion, the panel reached consensus that one standard is important to ensure interoperability and to allow users to collaborate effectively on the same document,” said the minutes.

A subsequent meeting of the same panel also considered a detailed comparison of ODF and OOXML, citing concerns raised by one member.

“We need to make sure there is sound reasoning to back up the decision as this may incur significant costs to some government departments. The comparison may be slightly skewed by concentrating solely on implementation of strict OOXML, which is an emerging standard similar to ODF 1.3, whilst considering implementations of all ODF versions. It ignores transitional OOXML which does have very wide support, arguably wider than ODF,” said the meeting minutes.

“LH described the issues identified in the [comparison] document and added that there has since been some confusion about support for OOXML strict in LibreOffice.  It appears that LibreOffice supports the standardised transitional OOXML, as well as a different Microsoft version of transitional OOXML,” the minutes stated.

“On the basis of the discussion, no further objections were raised. The panel agreed to recommend the adoption of ODF.”

One standard is important to ensure interoperability and to allow users to collaborate effectively on the same document

Cabinet Office Technical Standards Panel

Despite its obvious disappointment at the government’s decision, Microsoft was also keen to point out that its software does fully support ODF.

“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,” said the Microsoft spokesman.

“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.”

Writing in a blog, Government Digital Service director Mike Bracken said the decision will make it easier and cheaper to do business with government.

“This isn’t a decision we’ve taken lightly. We’ve spent a lot of time recently asking for feedback from the people who are most likely to be affected. Responses on our Standards Hub (over 500 of them) were overwhelmingly positive,” wrote Bracken.

“This is a big step for government, and things won’t change overnight. We have to make sure that the switch is managed properly. We shall work with departments to make the transition as smooth as possible, and ensure that the burden stays with government and not users.”


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