Office format war: AGIMO faces horde of critics


The Federal Government’s peak IT strategy group has been forced to defend its decision to standardise the public sector on a Microsoft-focused office document standard, as online commentators used the weekend to slam the group for what they saw as a lack of vision regarding rival open standards.

Last week, the Australian Government Information Management Office published its Common Operating Environment Policy, which contains a number of guidelines restricting how departments and agencies should allow users to access their desktops. One key item saw AGIMO require departments and agencies use Microsoft’s Office Open XML format.

However, most alternative office suites cannot write documents in the standard. The ODF Alliance, which is supporting a rival format, claimed last year the Office Open XML format was riddled with “Windows-platform dependencies” and essentially tied users to Microsoft Office, and some organisations, such as the National Archives of Australia, have picked the ODF standard instead in the long-term. AGIMO subsequently defended its decision, stating it had no vendor bias.

On Friday last week, AGIMO noted in a blog post that its policy was now complete, but it wanted to re-open the debate about the issue, as this might inform future policies. The result was a sea of criticism directed at the agency for its decision to standard on Office Open XML instead of the rival ODF format.

–”The document, at least in my opinion, appears to be very Microsoft centric, either because the writers only had experience with Microsoft Windows or for some other reason,” wrote one commenter, Stephen Norman.

“Looks like you’ve also been sucked in by the ‘OOXML is the only format that is compatible with all the legacy documents out there’ marketing line. This basically translates into ‘we’ve kept all the implementation bugs from every version of Microsoft Office and codified them into a published specification document’,” wrote another, Bruce Williams.

Many commentators highlighted the fact that there were in fact multiple standards under the Office Open XML umbrella — including the ECMA-376 format and the strict and transitional versions of the ISO/IEC 29500 format. In addition, not all versions of Microsoft Office supported the varying formats — as a comparison table produced by AGIMO on the matter demonstrated.

However, almost all office suites do support the ODF format promulgated by organisations associated with the suite.

“Why on earth would you not select the OpenDocument standard?” wrote one commentator. “It is an XML format; it is an OASIS standard; it is an ISO/IEC standard (26300:2006 Open Document Format for Office Applications) and, most importantly, it is vendor neutral. Have you read the FMA Act and Regulations? Have you read the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines? Have you not heard of the phrase ‘vendor lock in’?”

In response, AGIMO first assistant secretary John Sheridan consistently noted that AGIMO’s job in writing the policy was not to support a vision of open standards, but in fact to address interoperability with what it already had — “not to choose a more perfect standard and then move 265,000 PCs to it”.

AGIMO’s research prior to writing the policy had shown that more than 99.5 percent of government PCs were based on Windows, with more than 86 percent using Microsoft Office. IBM’s Lotus Symphony was the runner up with just under 13 percent usage.

Agencies also noted that they were solely planning to upgrade to Microsoft software in future — Windows 7, Office 2007 and Office 2010. “No other office productivity suites were identified,” wrote Sheridan. “The results of this survey highlighted that the majority of agencies are already using or planning to upgrade to the standards identified in the [Common Operating Environment] policy.”

The issue has also become the subject of an intensely debated thread on global news aggregation site, which has so far accumulated 188 comments on the matter.

However, there is evidence that AGIMO is taking the online slugfest with good humour.

Sheridan wrote on Twitter over the weekend that he was enjoying being at the beach with his son. However, he noted he was “a bit worried about lack of standard wave formats”, adding: “Think we need a [beach operating environment] policy?” And later: “Microsurf promises Oz version w/prawns not shrimp”, and “Enforcing BOE policy by confiscating surfboards. Only allowed surf with free tools”.

Image credit: Rene Asmussen, royalty free


  1. “In response, AGIMO first assistant secretary John Sheridan consistently noted that AGIMO’s job in writing the policy was not to support a vision of open standards, but in fact to address interoperability with what it already had — “not to choose a more perfect standard and then move 265,000 PCs to it”

    Is it worth pointing out at this point that 1) if AGIMO doesn’t make the decision to move to a more open standard, who will and 2) if they are running Office 2007 or later they already support (abliet not complete) ODF documents, and therefore the “cost” of migration is simply changing the default saving format on those 265,000 PCs, which should be pretty easy considering they want them all to be CENTRALLY MANAGED.

    Also can I further point out that there is less of a learning curve, except in the case of Macro Ridden Excel Workbooks (MREWs) as you need to learn a new scripting lanuage, to migrate to OpenOffice than from Office 2003 or Below to Office 2007/10? And if there are MREWs to worry about, migrating away from the current version of office they use will prove to be impossible.\

    In summary: /facepalm

  2. Are people still debating OOXML vs ODF? The way some people go on, you’d think it was a life-or-death decision…

    • Probably because they have nothing better to do with their time. Personally, I support the idea of open formats, however, considering most of the documents produced by a the government will be static in nature, i.e. not intended to be manpilated, then it doesn’t matter that much.

      I’ll point out the benefits of ODF vs OOXML and hope someone listens, but if they don’t, I’ll point out, so long as they release a PDF copy, I don’t much care. It’s not like I need to do anything with the documents they produce bar read them now is it?

  3. Just tried to evaluate OOXML vs ODF from a practical perspective. Am I doing this right? I saved a Word Document both as .xml (Word XML Document (OOXML)) and as .odt (Open Document Text (ODF)).

    So, the OOXML version retained all of my formatting and styles perfectly. The ODF version lost of all my styles (doesn’t support them?) and broke some of my formatting (mostly indenting issues).

    Have Microsoft just implemented ODF in a crippled format, or does it not support this?

      • Well then it would appear to me until Microsoft fix their implementation of ODF (actually it might work in Office 2010 – I tested Office 2007) and until the version of Office that contains a correct implementation is widespread (or a hotfix is developed for existing versions) then there’s AGIMO is justified in using OOXML.

        Sorry for those who prefer ODF, but that’s just the practical approach.

        • I have to agree, but also, understand that is chicken and egg.

          Microsoft won’t better support it until people say they use it and complain that it doesn’t work.

          More people won’t use it until Microsoft fixes it.

          At some point you have to make the leap. I don’t know when that is for sure through.

  4. Just go with RTF. It will retain all its format no matter where you go with it. :)

    ODF is just xml representing RTF data, so just go with RTF and forget about Microsoft OOXML. ;)

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