Microsoft rallies partners in government open standards debate

Microsoft’s UK chief has written to partners encouraging them to support its stance against government proposals for open document standards

Microsoft’s UK chief has written an open letter to the company’s partners encouraging them to support the software giant’s stance against government proposals for open document standards.

Michel Van der Bel, area vice-president for the UK, urged the Microsoft community to respond to the government consultation that closes on 26 February.

In January, the Cabinet Office announced its plan to mandate use of selected standards for document formats to ease information sharing and increase competition among suppliers.

The dominant system in government is Microsoft Word, and Whitehall IT chiefs hope that by adopting PDF and HTML standards for viewing documents and ODF, CSV, TXT and HTML for using and sharing documents, other products will be also used, reducing the dependence on a single supplier.

But the standards proposed do not include Microsoft’s preferred format, Open XML (OOXML), so Microsoft is rallying its partners to try to convince the government to recognise OOXML as one of the approved alternatives.

“Mandating one open standard for discrete document formats over another completely ignores benefits enabled by a choice of modern formats and is therefore likely to increase, not decrease, costs,” said Ven der Bel in his letter.

“Microsoft believes that the least costly and most effective way forward for any organisation seeking to ensure the maximum range of interoperability, the richest range of functionality and the widest use of common formats should be to embrace multiple open standard document formats, e.g. both OpenXML and ODF.”

Van der Bel’s letter is careful not to instruct partners to decide one way or the other, and stressed: “It is not our job to change your mind, but we feel we should ensure you are properly appraised of a situation that may have an impact on your business.”

Controversy surrounds Microsoft open standard

OOXML was created by Microsoft and pushed through the International Standards Organisation (ISO) after lobbying by the software giant, but the move was controversial. Critics warned that an open standard controlled by one company could never be as interoperable as one that was independent and widely accepted.

The least costly and most effective way for any organisation seeking to ensure the maximum range of interoperability, the richest range of functionality and the widest use of common formats is to embrace multiple open standard document formats

Michel Van der Bel, Microsoft

Writing in a blog post published in December 2013, open standards advocate Simon Wardley said: “Microsoft Office 2010 didn't even fully implement the open standard it created.

“The latest release of Microsoft Office does now implement strict OpenXML, unfortunately the default .docx is still transitional OpenXML, you have to specifically select strict OpenXML when you save the file (which is buried in the options) and of course, in order to use Microsoft Office 2013 you need to be running Windows 7 or Windows 8.”

One reader of a Microsoft partner network blog encouraging the acceptance of OOXML said in a comment: “OOXML is about as open and transparent as a black hole. It's nothing more than a vendor lock-in scam that has run its course. The world has moved on. Time to get with the new programme guys.”

Microsoft has previously lobbied the government over its open standards plans, and claimed that adopting ODF would cost the taxpayer over £500m to move away from its current proprietary formats.

Wardley countered in his blog: “What that means is we're currently locked into an environment which it will cost £500m to escape from.”

The government has said that the adoption of open document standards is not intended as a move for or against any one supplier.

“It’s not about banning any one product or imposing an arbitrary list of standards. Our plan is, as you would expect, about going back to the user needs, setting down our preferences and making sure we choose the software that meets our requirements best,” said Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude last month.

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