Congratulations to GDS on open document formats - but will Microsoft resort to litigation?

Back in February, when the UK government’s consultation on the use of open document formats closed, I described the decision to be made by the Cabinet Office as the acid test of its commitment to open standards.

Well, congratulations to all involved, for it is a test they have passed with flying colours.

The policy has been formally ratified, and ODF is now the standard format for sharing government documents – rejecting Microsoft’s impassioned proposals to add its preferred OOXML standard to the approved list. The move has been widely welcomed across the industry, and even as far as Brussels, with EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, tweeting her approval.

The policy has been less well received in the Thames Valley headquarters of Microsoft UK. The software giant, not surprisingly, is unhappy, stating that it is “unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit” from the decision.

So one question now remains: how serious is Microsoft’s objection to the decision to choose ODF?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is concerned that the issue may not be left to rest. In its latest GDS Business Plan for 2014/15, hidden away on page 43 of a 72-page document, it states one of the risks to its policy: “There is the potential for litigation on open standards“.

Is that risk highlighted out of some potentially misguided attitude towards Microsoft, on the basis that’s the sort of thing a big company might do to protect its market dominance?

Or are those fears based on comments – threats, even – made by Microsoft executives during discussions with GDS over the open standards policy?

We know that Microsoft has gone to great lengths over the past three years – since the Cabinet Office first announced its open standards policy – to lobby against decisions that might reduce Microsoft’s revenue from its biggest UK customer. The supplier has also petitioned Labour, encouraging the party’s Digital Government Review to avoid commitment to a single document standard (or at least, to avoid a single standard that is not its own).

Plenty of lobbying cash has been spent, unsuccessfully, to get to this point. Is there more left in the pot to fund litigation? We will have to wait and see, but Microsoft should resist any such urge. Accept the decision, move on, prove it can compete on a more level playing field.

GDS, meanwhile, faces its own challenges in making the policy stick across Whitehall. GDS director Mike Bracken acknowledged as much, writing in a blog that, “This is a big step for government, and things won’t change overnight.”

But it’s a positive step to government taking back control of its IT decision-making, and creating the open architecture and level playing field it has stated for so long that it wants to achieve. Round one to GDS.

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