Christmas comes early for the Open Document Faithful (ODF)

Jingle Bells. The UK government has spruced its open document policy up for Christmas.

The Cabinet Office began a public consultation on open document formats this week, three and a half years after it came to power promising they would be one of the first things it delivered.

The consultation might signify the government has renewed its commitment to the policy. It had struggled so much since the coalition’s first failed attempt to introduce it in 2011 that it seemed it would never deliver at all.

The Cabinet Office Open Standards Board issued a “challenge” for public comment on a proposal this week that government documents be published in a format that anyone can read.

“Citizens, businesses and government officials need to access government documents,” said the challenge.

“[They] must not have costs imposed upon them, or be excluded, by the format in which government documents are provided,” it said.

It said people should not be forced to buy special software just so they could read government documents. Government, in other words, must publish documents in formats that people can read without condition.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in a written press statement on Wednesday said open formats would make government communications more efficient.

Linda Humphries, policy lead at the Cabinet Office, said in a blog post that government officials were “frustrated” at being “locked-in” to buying particular vendor’s software because it was the only software that read a particular format.

She said at least one business had complained to her about being forced to buy particular software just to read communications issued by a government depart. She neglected to name the firm, the department, the software or the format.

The coalition has been reluctant to name names of software firms that pose a problem. But its policy is well understood to be an antidote to proprietary software fiefdoms controlled by Microsoft and Oracle. Opposition by these, along with Apple and the Business Software Alliance and international standards bodies, had forced the Cabinet Office to retract its policy months after it was introduced in 2011. It has already had two public consultations on open standards and formats since it pulled the policy, in an attempt to strengthen in fear of legal action from proprietary opponents.

Other governments have made more rapid and bold declarations for open standards under the same intense opposition from proprietary vendors. Portugal wrote open standards into law last November.

The Microsoft monopoly that inspired the policy meanwhile seems as strong as ever.

Bristol City Council, the coalition mascot for open source and open standards in the public sector, abandoned this year a decade long effort to use alternatives to Microsoft software. It was forced to abandon the effort under a government that promised to deliver open source and open standards across the whole public sector. The heart of government policy was always the open document format (.odf) alternative to Microsoft’s dominant .doc format.

Gavin Beckett, enterprise architect and pioneer of Bristol’s open source strategy, told a conference in April the council had been struggling alone against the tide. The council did not have the power the change the world on its own. Everyone used Microsoft formats because everyone used Microsoft formats – including all the other major software suppliers to government. So Bristol had to bite the bullet and buy Microsoft.

The European Commission is meanwhile coming to the latest break point in contracts that have made Microsoft the sole supplier of desktop office and operating software for more than 20 years. The Commission had been aspiring to find an open format alternative to Microsoft standards even when it signed the first contract to buy Microsoft Office in 1992.

An optimist might say the Cabinet Office’s latest consultation has come in the season of hope and new beginnings. A sceptic might say, ’tis the season of magical fantasy.