The UK government is adopting Open Document: some observations

The UK government is adopting the Open Document Format for Office Applications, for documents that are editable (read-only documents will be PDF or HTML). You can read Mike Bracken’s (Government Digital Service) blog on the subject here, and the details of the new requirements here. If you want to see the actual standards, they are on the OASIS site here.

I followed the XML document standards wars in some details back in 2006-2008. The origins of ODF go back to Sun Microsystems (a staunch opponent of Microsoft) which acquired an Office suite called Star Office, made it open source, and supported OpenOffice.org. My impression was that Sun’s intentions were in part to disrupt the market for Microsoft Office, and in part to promote a useful open standard out of conviction. OpenOffice eventually found its way to the Apache Foundation after Oracle’s acquisition of Sun. You can find it here.

During the time, Microsoft responded by shifting Office to use XML formats by default – these are the formats we know as .docx, .xlsx etc. It also made the formats an open standard via ECMA and ISO, to the indignation of ODF advocates who found every possible fault in the standards and the process. There were and are faults; but it has always seemed to me that an open XML standard for Microsoft Office documents was a real step forward from the wholly proprietary (but reverse engineered) binary formats.

The standards wars are to some extent a proxy for the effort to shift Microsoft from its dominance of business document authoring. Microsoft charges a lot for Office, particularly for businesses, and arguably this is an unnecessary burden. On the other hand, it is a good product which I personally prefer to the alternatives on Windows (on the Mac I am not so sure), and considering the amount of use Office gets during the working day even a small improvement in productivity is worth paying for.

As a further precaution, Microsoft added ODF support into its own Office suite. This was poor at first, though it has no doubt improved since 2007. However I would not advise anyone to set Microsoft Office to use ODF by default, unless mandated by some requirement such as government regulation. It is not the native format and I would expect a greater likelihood that something could go slightly wrong in formatting or metadata.

Bracken does not mention Microsoft Office in his blog; but as ever, the interesting part of this decision is how it will impact Office users in government, or working with government. If it is a matter of switching defaults in Office, that is no big deal, but if it means replacing Microsoft Office with Open Office or its fork, Libre Office, that will have more impact.

The problem with abandoning Microsoft Office is not only that that the alternatives may fall short, but also that the ecosystem around Microsoft Office and is document formats is richer – in other words, tools that consume or generate Office documents, add-ins for Office, and so on.

This also means that Microsoft Office documents are, in my experience, more interoperable (not less) than ODF documents.

That does not in itself make the UK government’s decision a bad one, because in making the decision it is helping to promote an alternative ecosystem. On the other hand, it does mean that the decision could be costly in constraining the choice of tools while the ODF ecosystem catches up (if it does).

How does the move towards cloud services like Office 365 and Google Docs impact on all this? Microsoft says it supports ODF in SharePoint; but for sure it is better to use Microsoft’s own formats there. For example, check the specifications for Office Online. You can edit docx in the browser, but not odt (Open Document Text); it is the same story with spreadsheets and presentations.

Google has recently added native support for the Microsoft formats to Google Docs.

Amazon’s Zocalo service, which I have just reviewed for the Register, can preview Microsoft’s formats in the browser, but while it also supports odt for preview, it does not support ods (Open Document Spreadsheet).

A good decision then by the UK government? Your answer may be partly ideological, but as a UK taxpayer, my feelings are mixed.

For more information on this and other government IT matters, I recommend Bryan Glick’s pieces over on Computer Weekly, like this one.

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9 comments to The UK government is adopting Open Document: some observations

  • niclas lindgren

    I find it odd that you can spend tax payers money in this way, especially when it is strained. Since no matter which format you choose you will need some kind of software to produce it, the government as others should choose the one that gets the work done the quickest not necessarily the cheapest, as a government should serve its people the faster they serve the more they serve, the better, labor cost is usually by far a higher concern.

    Also any argument of one standard being more open than the other feels more uninformed than a difference in practical use. As OneDrive provides free tools to produce documents in Microsoft xml formats it feels odd to use cost as a driving force switching, as well as openness.

    It feels odd to spend time and money on something that will have a marginal effect on the UK citizens, might even be more likely to have a negative effect than s positive one.

    How come PDF is fine…there are “free” alternatives.

    It is an ideologically heavy decision, not sure it is a vise choice with regards to cost vs benefit.

  • This is silly. Clearly everyone should standardize on LaTeX.

  • Alexandre Jacquot

    I start to replace Excel as reporting tool about two years ago. I was using OLE to generate reports. At each new version of Excel, especially to make diagrams I had to make some very small change in the code. The problem is that Microsoft makes change to thing that do work (already bad things), but the worst is that MS do not document what the changes are. Also the reporting was getting slower (probably because of the overused of the net. framework). Now I am writing diretly the report in Openoffice Calc format. It is much faster, free and the maintenance of the code is reduced to zero.

    I wrote also this year my first scientific article with Openffice writer. The problem with microsoft word (and I am not the only one that is thicking like this) is the Ribbon Control. For the OS the Ribbon control is great. But for office, It did just decrease my productivity so much, that I did look for an alternative. Yes my productivity did decrease! The second reason, is that one time, I wrote a document in docx format for a journal but the editor did wand the old doc format. The problem is that all the equation I wrote was looking terribly bad (like a btmap in low resolution). I look in the internet tofind a solution. The problem was well documented, but no solution from Microsoft and it does not seems a problem for this company.

    The document I wrote with Oppenoffice writer look very good (may be even better than with MS office) in odt and also doc format but it is not that much because of Openoffice writer but because of Openoffice Draw. Draw is a much, much better than any drawing tool from Microsoft. There are also some drawing format in Draw that are very usefull and not supported by MS office tool. MS equation editor is much easier to use than in Oppen office, but since the equation are not converted correctly in doc format, it is a real problem. I also appreciate the capability without loss to convert document in epub format.

    I am also using Openoffice much more, because I am writing documentations of softwares that is running not only on Windows but on the Mac and Linux. So I need a word processor that run on the 3 Platforms. Cloud have never been option for me because it is not allowed in the company I am working in.

    Today I try to use Openoffice Impress for fun for a talk I add to give tomorow. I just give up. I had to insert a video in the slides. Impress was not able to play that video (it is a bug in the software) that does exist since several month and that never been fixed.

  • Ian Easson

    You are repeating an urban myth that Microsoft’s incorporation of XML into Office was a response to ODF. Microsoft began the process in Office 97 (with a small aspect of PowerPoint), and increased that integration with each subsequent release.

    The question was not the use of XML in a document format. The question was whether that use should be standardized. Sun did it out of desperation, since it was getting nowhere with ODF. Microsoft did the standardization of OOXML partly as a response, and partly as a result of the entreaties of the head of the ECMA (this is all a matter of public record).

  • Ian Easson

    To Alexandre Jacquot:

    Your comment is so out of whack with reality that I think you may be a troll, or maybe you are severely uninformed.

    Here is what you claim, and here is what is the truth:

    (1) You say that “Microsoft does not say what the changes are” to new versions of Office. Microsoft is well known for documenting such changes in detail. So, unless you are prepared to give specific examples, I don’t believe you.
    (2) You say that reporting has progressively gotten slower in Office due to its use of .NET. Well, Office doesn’t use .NET. So, again, I don’t believe you.
    (3) You say that the ribbon control for Office is terrible, but its use for Windows is great. You seem unaware that the only use of the ribbon control in Windows is for the file manager, and only in Windows 8. So, again, I don’t believe you.
    (4) You claim that an editor wanted a “.doc” format for a paper that used equations, but when you converted the paper from “.docx” format to “.doc” format, the equations looked like bitmaps. Well, when you do such a conversion, the equations are kept as equations. So, again, I don’t believe you.
    (5) You claim that Office formats are not supported on the Mac or Linux. Not so. Office runs directly on the Mac (and has since forever), and the “.docx” formats are supported by many applications on Linux. So, again, I don’t believe you.

  • Alexandre Jacquot

    Dear Ian Easson,

    (1) Windows plattform becomes increasingly complex for developper for doing basically the same things (look how c# drop in Tiobe index). There were to many changes of technology which the relevance may be questionned.
    (2) may be Excel 2010 was slower than previous version for doing the same things for me. I do know why, it was slower for me.
    (3) Well I have also Windows 8, at home. Ribbon is great for the file manager but not in Word, and make a diagrame with excel after 97 is unintuitive.
    (4) I just make a simple equation (x^y) with Office 2010 today and save it as doc. The equation is like low resolution bitmap. Sorry.
    (5) I have also a Mac. I have bought a home edition of Office for my windows PC. Does it run on my Mac? Should I pay for the same software so that it run on my Mac?

  • Tom

    Perhaps I could clear up the confusion over equations.

    Word 2007 has a new equation editor. If you save as a .DOC file, then the equation is preserved exactly in the .DOC file. A bitmap preview is *also* saved so that the equation does not come up blank in Word 2003, but that doesn’t mean that the original equation is lost! If you load up the .DOC in your copy of Word, then save as .DOCX, the equation gets “rehydrated” and becomes sharp again.

    To figure this out, all you have to do is to read the dialog that comes up when you save as .DOC: “You will not be able to edit the equations until the document is converted to a new file format.”

    Now consider: Alexandre has sent papers to a scientific journal that can only handle Word 2003 files! How is this an argument for OpenOffice?

    Remember: this isn’t even about running Word 2003 itself. It’s their *third-party* publication software that cannot handle .DOCX files. OpenOffice simply makes the problem worse. Instead of supporting .DOC and .DOCX, now the software has to support a third format as well.

  • Diego

    Dear Tom:

    DOC file format is a de-facto standard. The bad thing about closed, undocumented de-facto standards is that a lot of different software interoperate with them, but that doesn’t mean that they get updated when that file format changes years later. The standardization of ODF was intended as a solution to that (albeit ideologically charged, sure).

    It’s not an argument for OpenOffice, it’s an argument for clear, stable, well defined standards. What if Microsoft tomorrow decides that a new .DOCY file format is needed? Should the rest of the world suck it up and spend time and money to add support for it, just because Microsoft says so? What if, instead of Microsoft, we talk about Autodesk and their AutoCAD software, for example?

  • Alex Atkin

    This is interesting as Sheffield Council still have a nasty habit of serving .doc files on their website for read-only content, because its just the files they were using internally. Hopefully they too will make the switch.