What the UK Government’s adoption of ODF really means

On Tuesday the news that the UK Government had decided to use ODF as its official and default file format started to spread. The full announcement with technical details may be found here; the Document Foundation published its press release on Thursday morning there.

This decision is a landmark for several reasons. First, it is not every day that you see an entire ODF-logogovernment migrate to a standardized file format. You may hear about government branches using this or that solution, but nothing that is so “abstract” than a file format.  This time the UK Government has made the conscious decision to define a coherent policy in handling its digital documents, from the stage where they are created, edited and circulated all the way to the archival phase. It also comes year after the decision of the State of Massachusetts. As such the decision covers a variety of standards (HTML, PDF and ODF); yet its scope, as Glyn Moody rightly reminds us, also means that the devil will lie in the details of the execution.

Most of the migrations from one office suite to another tend to happen without any coherent document management policy. Many organizations moving from, say, Microsoft Office to LibreOffice do not necessarily adopt ODF as their default format and will carry on supporting whatever version of the MS Office file format internally. This usually leads to frustrations and compatibility problems. This time, the UK Government decision takes a different approach. By deciding about the formats first, the UK creates the conditions necessary to have real choices for its government and its citizens, thus setting a level playing field for everyone. Many people have understood this decision as being a move against Microsoft. It is not or at least it should not be. Microsoft Office implements ODF files and its latest editions, as I’m being told are actually quite good at it. What this move does, however, is to ensure no other solution will be at a competitive disadvantage because of a technical or legal (aka patents) lock-in. Of course, it remains to be seen what concrete actions the UK Government will take in order to ensure a smooth transition between proprietary formats and open standards; and it remains to be seen how well it will ensure a proper change management across all of its departments so that its agents feel comfortable with ODF documents and whatever new office suites that may be adopted as a result of the decision. Much could be lost at that stage, but much could be gained as well. And of course, just like with the Netherlands, the decision itself might end up being toned down or take a somewhat different meaning.

While reading among the tea leaves is not my favourite past time, it is relevant to assume that this decision may change a few things around the IT industry as well. By way of an example, I have always been amazed at Apple’s clean support of ODF inside Mac OS X but its constant absence across the iWork editions. Perhaps Apple will feel compelled to introduce ODF files in iWork now? Only time will tell. Cloud solutions will also have to improve or implement ODF and in some cases PDF support in a proper way.

The decision might also have consequences for other European countries and perhaps for the European institutions themselves, as the UK will now be an actual example of a country that has migrated to ODF, and not just one of the countries that made the choice of Free and Open Source Software. This is rare enough to catch the attention of several member states CIO offices.

This move to open standards by the UK Government is also telling of a deeper change in IT industry. We may reach the stage where finally, the average user starts to realize that the old Windows + Office paradigm starts to get exhausted. What can you do with Office documents aside opening them imperfectly in alternatives and opening them in a more effective way with Microsoft software? Actually, not much. Unless you get SharePoint. But the whole point is that in 2014, trying to extract revenue by creating lock-in on office files is no longer acceptable. That, I think, is what the UK Government decision really means. And if I’m right, it’s only the beginning.

Last but not least, this post would not be over without thanking many people whom I’ve worked with for several years in my position at my former company, Ars Aperta, in my former role at OpenOffice.org, at the OASIS Consortium and even today when contributing to the LibreOffice project. I’m thinking about people at OpenForum Europe, the FFII, the APRIL, the AFUL, the OASIS, the now defunct ODF Initiative and everyone else I am forgetting right now but who should be remembered. It’s nice sometimes, after such successes, to turn back and look at the road behind us. It can only give more confidence to walk on the one ahead.

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