Now comes the acid test for the government's open standards policy

The UK government’s consultation on the use of open document formats has closed*, and we now wait for the acid test of the Cabinet Office commitment to open standards.

The outcome of this process will determine the government’s ability to break its lock-in to proprietary software for years to come.

Responses to the consultation – available online for all to read and comment, in a welcome break from the past – have spread across 14 web pages, such is the interest in what may seem an arcane and narrow topic to those outside IT.

The champions of the policy – led by chief technology officer Liam Maxwell – will tell you over and again that this is not about any one supplier or product, it is simply about ensuring maximum competition and choice for public sector IT buyers.

But of course, everyone else knows this is really about breaking the dominance of Microsoft Office and avoiding lock-in to that one supplier.

The consultation has attracted international attention, with supportive comments from organisations around the world that have been through a similar process. Internet guru Vint Cerf, in his role as Google’s web evangelist, has commented, as have pressure groups such as the Free Software Foundation and Open Forum Europe.

The responses are overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed use of ODF as the standard for documents – a format support by Microsoft Office, and by plenty of other non-Microsoft applications.

The controversy arises from the omission of OOXML – the standard proposed and designed by Microsoft, used (in one of its forms) as the default for Office, and by, well, not very many others.

Microsoft’s national technology officer, Mark Ferrar, contributed the company’s lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal of the policy. The supplier has tried to rally its troops to the cause, writing an open letter to its partners last week encouraging them to contribute to the consultation. It would appear that very few listened.

Certainly it would be fair to say that the open source / free software lobby has marshalled its supporters to much greater effect.

Microsoft has no objection to the use of ODF, but insists that OOXML should be included too. The basis for this argument is that OOXML is by far and away the most popular “open” standard for documents in use across the UK public sector.

You can translate that to mean that, not surprisingly, the vast majority of government documents have been created and saved in Office formats such as .docx and .xlsx – although these use the “transitional” form of OOXML and not, as many contributors pointed out, the “full” OOXML standard.

Other commenters on the consultation pointed out the somewhat foot-in-mouth nature of Ferrar’s observation, in that he proved the total dominance of Office formats across the public sector and thus demonstrated the precise reasons why the government wants to break that stranglehold.

Microsoft has previously quoted a figure of £500m as the cost of transitioning all government documents to ODF, but stopped quoting that number so loudly when it was pointed out that this was in fact the cost of being locked-in to Microsoft Office.

So, what happens next?

The government has only two options – to stick with its proposal and exclude OOXML, or accede to Microsoft’s wishes and allow both ODF and OOXML.

If they choose the latter, the Cabinet Office will stand accused of crumbling in the face of the big supplier power it has said so often it wishes to break away from. The open standards policy would be in tatters.

If they stick to their preferred option, then it must be likely that Microsoft will formally challenge the outcome of the consultation process, leaving it mired in legalities for ages – and possibly until a change of government in 2015 decides it’s not worth the hassle.

It would not be that hard for well-funded lawyers to argue that the responses to the consultation are not wholly representative of the entire tech community, given the obvious enthusiasm of the anti-Microsoft brigade to put forward their opinions.

But there is little doubt that the vast majority of people with an interest in genuinely open standards and unencumbered competition are hoping the government will prove its commitment and ratify its proposals.

*Amendment: The consultation was due to close on 26 February, but the Cabinet Office has extended the deadline to 5pm on 28 February because a “glitch” on the server meant that some people were unable to submit comments by the original deadline. If a sudden flood of pro-OOXML responses are submitted, we’ll let you know…