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By | Neil McAllister 22nd February 2014 08:02

Microsoft asks pals to help KILL UK gov's Open Document Format dream

Cabinet Office blasted for 'ignoring benefits' and 'limiting choice'

The UK Cabinet Office is close to adopting Open Document Format (ODF) as the official standard for government documents, but it hasn't happened yet – and it won't, if Microsoft has anything to say about it.

The software giant has issued an open letter to its partners in the UK, urging them to submit comments on the Cabinet Office proposal to the effect that Her Majesty's government should be allowed to continue to use Microsoft file formats.

In January, the Cabinet Office's Standards Hub issued a recommendation that only open standards–based document formats be used for government publications, including HTML, plain text, comma-separated values, and ODF.

The latter is the XML-based office document format developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) consortium as a direct competitor to the closed, proprietary formats used by Microsoft Office. It's also the default document format used by several open source office suites, including Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice.

Since the rise of ODF, however, Microsoft has developed a set of XML-based document formats of its own, known variously as OpenXML or Office Open XML (OOXML). These have been the default formats for Office since Office 2007, and Microsoft thinks the Cabinet Office should give them the nod, too.

In an open letter [Warning: somewhat ironic .docx format – Ed], Microsoft UK area VP Michael Van der Bel said Redmond believes UK government offices should be allowed to choose between ODF and OpenXML, and it thinks its partners might agree, too.

"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 ... risk widespread citizen dissatisfaction (which the government is attempting to avoid) and add (not remove) complexity to the process of dealing with government," Van der Bel wrote.

The Cabinet Office's proposal also ignores "the fact that the vast majority of citizens and businesses already use OpenXML as their preferred document format," he said.

The letter further accuses the Cabinet Office of backing ODF primarily out of a desire to save money on software by switching to open-source applications. If that's the aim, Van der Bel said, switching document formats isn't necessary, because modern versions of open-source suites support OpenXML, just as Office supports ODF.

Here he speaks truth, though not in the sense he intends. Developers of competing office suites have long struggled to properly support Microsoft's Byzantine OpenXML formats. Although they have been accepted as international standards by both Ecma and ISO, the standards themselves run some 6,000 pages, and even Microsoft has been accused of not fully adhering to the ISO version of the spec.

Similarly, it wasn't until the release of Office 2013 that Microsoft's productivity suite supported ODF 1.2, and the ODF plugins Redmond released for earlier versions of Office were widely criticized for their halfhearted compliance with the standard. According to Microsoft's own documentation, many Word features are still listed as "partially supported" or "not supported" when saving to ODF.

'It is not our job to change your mind'

The result of these inconsistencies is that "round-tripping" documents between Office and competing suites often leads to corruption no matter which format you use, with documents rendering differently in different programs.

Little wonder, then, that Microsoft would like to keep its own formats in the mix. There will be little incentive for UK government offices to stick with Office once they're required to read and save documents in ODF – something Redmond's Office is admittedly not very good at.

Not that Microsoft is putting any pressure on its partners to speak up on its behalf, mind.

"First, we want to make clear that you are not obliged, either by Microsoft or by the government, to do anything or comment in any way," Van der Bel wrote. "You may be entirely comfortable with the government's intention and their proposal.  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."

If, however, after reading Redmond's official response and its detailed, point-by-point challenge [Another .docx – Ed] to the Cabinet Office's recommendation, Microsoft partners are convinced of the value of supporting OpenXML in addition to ODF, the software giant would love to see them submit comment via the Cabinet Office website, here (registration required).

Perhaps some Reg readers might care to do the same? The comment period ends on Wednesday, February 26. ®

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