UK government adopts ODF for document exchange with citizens and suppliers

The U.K. government has adopted ODF as its standard for the exchange of word processor and spreadsheet files between departments and with citizens and suppliers, meaning that companies and citizens will not be required to buy a particular application or software suite in order to collaborate with government staff.

ODF (OpenDocument Format) is the native file format of free open-source applications such as Apache OpenOffice, originally developed by Sun Microsystems, and LibreOffice, a fork of OpenOffice maintained by The Document Foundation. It is also supported by recent versions of Microsoft Office and other commercial office productivity software such as WordPerfect Office X7.

The government expects all government bodies will use the file format in time, the U.K. Cabinet Office said Tuesday, concluding a months-long public consultation process that had pitted ODF against Microsoft’s preferred file format, OOXML.

The interdepartmental body also mandated the use of PDF/A or HTML for viewing government documents that do not need to be modified by the recipient.

New software procured by the government for sharing or collaborating on documents must be compatible with ODF, creating a level playing field for suppliers of all sizes, the Cabinet Office said.

Both ODF and OOXML have been adopted by the International Organization for Standardization, ISO, as international standards for office documents. ODF won the accolade first, in May 2006, but the process leading up to the adoption of a variant of OOXML as ISO/IEC 29500 in April 2008 was more controversial, with criticism of the standard for its opaque references to legacy Microsoft-proprietary code continuing to this day.

Concerns about that legacy code, and the close ties of OOXML to Microsoft, have led to fears that adopting OOXML may lock users into using the company’s products.

The Document Foundation hailed the Cabinet Office decision, saying U.K. citizens will be the first in Europe to be liberated from proprietary lock-ins.

Microsoft had tried to sway the debate about which standard to adopt, encouraging the Cabinet Office to allow use of either ODF or OOXML, as several of the office productivity applications on the market provide some support for both.

Ultimately, though, compliance with any of the existing versions of OOXML is neither required nor relevant, said U.S. lawyer Andy Updegrove, who has closely watched the rivalry between the two formats since before their approval by ISO. The decision to mandate only ODF “is most significant for the degree of market adoption and legitimization it will necessarily lead to,” he wrote in an email.

The requirement for compliance with the ODF and PDF standards takes effect immediately for new procurements, and the Government Digital Service will work with other departments on implementation plans for existing systems.

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