Federal Govt re-affirms Microsoft format choice


news The Federal Government’s central IT strategy division has re-affirmed and formalised its decision to pick Microsoft’s Office Open XML document standard as the federal public sector’s common office document standard, despite the fact that most alternative office suites cannot write documents in the standard.

The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) has been examining office file formats for more than a year, as part of what it terms its Common Operating Environment Policy, a document which contains a number of guidelines restricting how departments and agencies should allow users to access their desktops.

In January 2011, AGIMO had initially decided to standardise departments and agencies on Microsoft’s Office Open XML format, the format primarily used by Microsoft’s Office 2007 and 2010 suites. However, the move was greeted by a sea of criticism directed at the agency by online commenters, and consequently AGIMO decided to re-examine the choice.

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.

In a blog post last week, AGIMO first assistant secretary of its Agency Services Division, John Sheridan, noted that following “robust discussion”, AGIMO had standardised on two standardised variants of Office Open XML.

“Changes resulting from the 2011 review of the COE policy have been reviewed by the [whole of government] COE Working Group and noted by the Chief Information Officer Committee (CIOC),” Sheridan wrote. “Specifically, the policy has been updated to reflect the current preferred document file format to use for cross-government interoperability.”

“Based on a survey conducted in 2010, a large number of agencies representing the majority of the government desktop fleet signalled their intention to move to either Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010 as part of their next upgrade. To support the interoperability of these office productivity suites and ensure that alternative non-Microsoft office productivity suites can also be utilised within government, the document format standards ECMA 376 1st edition and ISO/IEC 29500:2008 were chosen.” The two standards are sub-variants of Office Open XML as defined by Microsoft and various standards organisations.

Sheridan noted that while both Office 2007 Service Pack 2 and Office 2010 were compatible with different standards, the pair’s basis in Office Open XML meant the differences were minimal, and documents could be shared between the two suites with “little to no functionality loss, dependent on the content of the document”. “Adoption of both standards applicable to the OOXML format best meets at this time the intent of the standard,” Sheridan wrote, “which is to mandate a file format that fully supports the primary office productivity suites used within government agencies.”

However, the new file format choice may be short-lived, with Sheridan noting that the Common Operating Environment policy being reviewed annually. “As new formal or informal standards evolve, they will be considered for inclusion in the policy where appropriate,” he wrote. “The next annual review will commence in October 2012.”

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.

From memory I have always broadly been supportive of AGIMO’s decision to standardise on Office Open XML. I wrote the following in February this year:

“From my perspective, I believe that AGIMO is being too cautious. Frankly, the office productivity wars are over. OpenOffice.org and similar open source suites have absolutely no presence in Australia, Google Docs has similarly gone nowhere in the enterprise, and even powerful players such as IBM have been unable to make any headway in this area.

Microsoft is the dominant, monopoly player in corporate office suites, and Australia’s Federal Government would be silly to choose any other standard than one supported strongly by Microsoft. As Sheridan alludes to in his post, as long as Microsoft remains fairly open and transparent, which it is these days, there are no business advantages to using competing suites. The use of something like OpenOffice.org is very much purely an ideological matter.

Microsoft’s victory in this area has been assured through the completion of its powerful technology stack. SharePoint integrates with Office integrates with Outlook integrates with Exchange integrates with Windows Server. And so on. If you’re using something like OpenOffice.org, you simply don’t get this advantages. And Google’s refusal to allow users to host their documents in-country has damned its own (pretty decent, if feature-limited) Docs platform to obscurity, especially in regulation-sensitive government.

Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see some competition for Microsoft Office arise and challenge Redmond’s dominance. But until that happens, the Federal Government should stop worrying about this issue, and focus on other areas where platform choice can make a real difference. Allowing users to install their own web browser — instead of forcing everyone to use old versions of Internet Explorer — would be a good start. Some of us like tabbed browsing. It seems like it’s here to stay.”

The choice of office document file format does not represent a strategy which will drive significant difference in the Federal Government’s operations. Consequently, the Federal Government should focus on following the market in this area and instead focus on innovating where it can actually make a difference to its operations.

Image credit: Microsoft Sweden, Creative Commons


  1. ECMA 376 1st edition – what Office 2007 & later write out
    ISO/IEC 29500:2008 – the bodgied up version of ECMA 376 that comes closest to an actual standard (though it’s still riddled with problems and proprietary Microsoft-only portions), but which even Microsoft doesn’t claim to support, and probably never will.

    In other words, AGIMO are claiming to choose a “standard” office format, instead they’ve elected to choose “whatever Microsoft Office writes out”.

    Microsoft have no intention of supporting ODF while so many governments & corporations willingly hand over their cash. The last thing they want is the possibility of competition (and, you know, customers able to read documents created with older versions of the software… Office2010 complains bitterly when I try to open old docs here at work, and almost invariably screws up the formatting).

  2. “the document format standards ECMA 376 1st edition and ISO/IEC 29500:2008 were chosen”.
    As I recall, MS doesn’t actually implement the ECMA standard for open xml documents. I mean, it uses the name just fine, but the content written out by word etc is somewhat non-conforming. See for example:


    I find it interesting that the govt specifically mentioned a documentation format standard then chose a produce that doesn’t adhere to it particularly well.

    PS. Is it just me, or is the title picture just screaming for a caption contest?

  3. This stinks of vendor lock-in. It leaves me wondering who in AGIMO was wined and dined by Microsoft salespeople…

    I am expecting AGIMO to upgrade to Microsoft Office 2013 as soon as it is released, considering it will be the first office suite to fully support OOXML strict format. Why standardise on a document format that no software currently supports? It’s entirely possible to use Microsoft Office without requiring OOXML, as ODF has been supported since Office 2007 SP2.

      • Not laying any criticism directly on AGIMO, but Microsoft does have previous form in this regard. I say they should upgrade because it would be a bit silly for this department to standardise on a specific format, and then continue to use software that doesn’t support said format.

  4. Big business controls the white house so why shouldn’t it control capitol hill?

  5. “The Federal Government’s central IT strategy division has re-affirmed and formalised its decision to pick Microsoft’s Office Open XML document standard as the federal public sector’s common office document standard”

    Look at the weazel words;

    Common; Its actually only common to one companies product.
    Standard; Standard on only one product is not standard for an industry.

    I dont understand how a “strategy division” that keeps telling people to do whatever they have been doing can manage to keep their jobs.

  6. in the big scheme of things, does it really matter? yes, it means that microsoft make more money, but they deserve to, as they have the best productivity stack for business and government (Office).

    i would guess upwards of 70% of business and government IN THE WORLD use some sort of Office product. until a better, more widely-adopted office package comes along, business and government are more than justified in choosing the best product, which Office just is.

    yes, it means our tax dollars at work, but wouldn’t you rather they spend the money on something that works, instead of something that they will need to continually tweak and review? i would rather them just get the latest version of Office (or the previous one, as other businesses do) and get back to work.

    • Standardising on ODF does not preclude anyone from using Microsoft Office, or any of the multitude of software packages that support it. Standardising on OOXML enforces vendor lock-in as there will be only one software package, Office 2013, that supports OOXML strict format. Keep in mind that there are currently no software packages available anywhere that support OOXML strict format.

      • Well, standardising on ODF *can* cause problems with using Microsoft Office, as Microsoft, with all their $billions spent on software development, *still* can’t figure out how to read & write ODF documents successfully. You know, like all those volunteer-coded open source programs do…

        Mind you, some might say they still can’t figure out how to read & write OOXML documents successfully, either. :-P

        And don’t get me started on the latest user interfaces they’re pushing…

        • Microsoft’s support for ODF is still a long way ahead of other software package’s support for OOXML.

          • Might have something to do with ODF being a 300-page standard that’s well defined, while OOXML is a 6000-page-plus opus to Microsoft’s unwillingness or inability to clearly specify it’s file formats…

  7. This wouldn’t be so galling if they didn’t bullshit about it.

    They didn’t adopt the OOXML standard. They can’t, because as others have pointed out, there is no software as yet that can read or write that standard. What they did is re-affirm their commitment to Microsoft.

    I have no doubt doing anything else would be hugely painful and costly. There is no other software package on earth other than Office that can flawlessly read and write Microsoft Office formats. In fact not even Microsoft’s products can flawlessly read and write older versions of their formats, and of course they go out of their way to ensure older versions of their products can’t read and write the files written by newer versions. It’s a very successful strategy to keep everyone, including the Government, on the upgrade treadmill.

    Unlike everyone else here, I wish they would standardise on OOXML, with the emphasis on the word standardise. As standardise in the same way we have standardised on 240 volts. In other words the AGIMO should police it, with independently written verification software, to ensure every document produced by the government complies with it. If they did that then in a few years they would find they could opt out of the Microsoft treadmill if they wanted. That would become possible because for the first time they would be using a static standard, something that the rest of the world has a hope implementing reliably before it changes.

    They won’t though. There is nothing in their statements that indicates they are interested in standardisation of a document format per se. Instead they are standardising everyone using Microsoft’s products. In 2013 Microsoft’s products will finally be able to produce OOXML, but I’ll lay odds within a few more years they won’t by default. Instead they will produce an OOXML with enhancements that support some new have feature that no one needed before, but with the side effect that no one other than Microsoft can render them properly.

    When that happens I predict few will notice, less will care, and no one will propose a policy that every Microsoft product used by the government shall have the “strict OOXML format” option box checked. All this talk of standardisation OOXML is just a screen of bullshit to hide what the real decision is – which is to stay on the Microsoft treadmill.

    • Hi Russell

      Thanks for your views. I am the responsible senior executive from AGIMO for the Common Operating Environment policy. I try hard not to bulls**t about things.

      One aspect of this is the choice of document format to be used for interoperability between agencies. As I’m sure you can appreciate, the ability to interchange documents is critical to the effective and efficient conduct of government business. What the policy detail actually says is that agencies need to be able to read and write documents in ECMA 376 1st edition or ISO/IEC 29500:2008. (Please note we deliberately did not specify ‘strict’.) Microsoft software is not mandatory. (So, clearly the wining and dining hasn’t worked.)

      It’s not a perfect policy but as some people have noted, there aren’t any perfect policies in this area. The vast majority of agencies use Microsoft Office – this is reality. The churn cost of change is very significant. The cost of one complete day of lost public service productivity is about the same as our annual cost of Microsoft standard desktop licensing.

      Often, this discussion concentrates on word processing documents, at the expense of other types, particularly spreadsheets. A lot of public service work uses spreadsheets and, often, these spreadsheets include macros, sometimes extensive and complex macros. These just don’t translate well between formats. If we adopted ODF for word processing, we’d still need OOXML for spreadsheets. Maintaining two standards wouldn’t be very useful.

      As to the idea of compliance monitoring at the level suggested here, I’m not clear on how the benefit would justify the cost.

      As our post noted, we continue to review these matters regularly. In doing so, we’ll stick with the pragmatic rather than the theological.



      • @John,

        > The vast majority of agencies use Microsoft Office – this is reality

        You know that the horse goes in front of the cart, right?

        Seriously, if this is one of your prime parameters, then there’s little point in debating the matter; the Microsoft format du jour is always going to come out the winner.

        > one complete day of lost public service productivity is about the same as our annual
        > cost of Microsoft standard desktop licensing

        Let’s get this straight. The entire federal govt might shut down completely because something in a word processor or spreadsheet doesn’t work quite the way it did before?

        And what’s the cost of that licensing of a period of 10 or 20 years? Not to mention all the desktop os, server os and associated hardware upgrades that are regularly forced on you when you commit to the Microsoft “stack”? And has anybody ever done any ROI costings on all of those upgrades over all of those years?

      • @John

        Thanks for the reply.

        @John As I’m sure you can appreciate, the ability to interchange documents is critical to the effective and efficient conduct of government business.

        Yes, I can appreciate that. I am somewhat in awe of what Microsoft has managed to pull off. Right now, an enterprise can not use Microsoft products because the alternatives simply don’t work with Microsoft’s formats to anything like an acceptable standard. They manage to keep the level of pain at just the right level – low enough for uses that the minor breakage that occurs at every new version doesn’t hurt too much and the price is minor in scheme of things, but high enough for competitors so they can never catch up.

        @John Please note we deliberately did not specify ‘strict’.

        I see. You did this so other software could be used? If so, that was a mistake. Sure, adding makes it easy for other vendors to comply now, but it also makes it easy for Microsoft to change what they produce in the future and thus keep the treadmill running.

        My concern is not that the government or anyone else uses Microsoft products. I am in no position to say what works best in your environment, and if Microsoft makes the best product so be it. My concern is your choice leaks into the wider community. .doc’s, .xls’s, .ppt’s and what not appear all over government web sites. In order to read those files people have to either purchase or pirate software. Here is one example: http://abr.business.gov.au/LookupTool.aspx?showlicence=Y&tool=abnunzipped

        You could start the process of bringing this unfortunate state of affairs to an end by picking a standard, and insisting on it. It doesn’t have to be a single big hammer – it could begin by mandating that all government documents published after date XXXX adhere to some set of international formats. You could also institute a policy that says has the right at ask for a document to be sent to them in one of those formats.

        Obviously this can’t be done now, as no one can read or write your chosen format. But in 2015 or so office 2013 will have permeated enough to make such a request reasonable and doable. If you did that, then in 10 years time there is a reasonable chance someone could pick up a 10 year old document, print it, with the expectation it will look just like it did when they printed it 10 years ago. And there is a reasonable chance that in 10 years time, a citizen can read and edit the governments published documents with either breaking the law or paying a company in another country for the privilege of doing so.

        For all the talk of standardisation and standards, this isn’t what you currently policy achieves, is it? What it actually does it not adopt any standard, thus ensuring thus status quo is maintained and in 10 years time we will be in exactly the same position we are in now.

        I confess I thought you were fully aware of the implications of you decision, went ahead anyway covered your tracks with “bullshit”. I apologise for that. Evidently you are just looking at it from a different point of view to me. However, regardless of motivation, the end result will be the same.

  8. @BrownieBoy I think that there are a range of interesting directions the accepted formats for office documents could take in the future which is why we monitor this matter closely. Using the OOXML format does not dictate operating systems or the rest of the stack. For example, 20% of the server fleet in government is non-Wintel. We do quite a bit of analysis of costs in government IT – see here for example: http://www.finance.gov.au/budget/ict-investment-framework/ict-benchmarking.html

    If over an entire year, the need to learn details of a new package took up a total of 7.5 hours, and all public servants experienced that, the opportunity cost of the time would be roughly equivalent to the current annual cost of licensing for the standard Microsoft desktop software. That isn’t to say everything grinds to a halt. It represents less than half of one percent of a standard year’s work per person.

    @Russell Thanks for the apology. I appreciate it. It is much easier to engage in these discussions if they are civil and polite.

    The software market is what it is. 250,000 users aren’t enough to change it that much and trying to do so might not be an effective use of public service effort.

    We did deliberately not choose strict. I appeciate that you mightn’t agree but that doesn’t necessarily make it a mistake.

    The standards for posting documents to web sites are covered in the AGIMO Web Publishing Guide (http://webguide.gov.au/). You will see that the accessibility policy requires accessible formats to be used and this can often mean more than one. I note that the link you provided downloads a .xls file, which is not an OOXML format and is able to be read and written by a wide range of office applications.

    In doing this work we need to standardise not set Standards (deliberate capitalisation). AGIMO is involved with international Standards work (http://agimo.govspace.gov.au/2012/08/28/standards-work-progressing-well/). However, in the COE policy our focus is on interoperability. There is quite a list of software that can read and/or write OOXML formats (if one stays away from ‘strict’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_software_that_supports_Office_Open_XML).

    • @John,

      > If over an entire year, the need to learn details of a new package took up a total of 7.5 hours…

      A fair point. But what were/are the training costs of moving from Office 2003 to 2007/2010? They are radically different user interfaces. Arguably, LibreOffice looks and feels more like Office 2003 than later versions of Office do! Did you factor *those* costs into your calculations?

      Certainly, there’s pain in moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, but once it’s done, it’s done. And if that move was to open source, then your purchase costs are now zero for ever.

      > Using the OOXML format does not dictate operating systems or the rest of the stack

      If you’ve followed the history of the development of OOXML, you’d know that OOXML not only dictates this, but is, in fact, its entire raison d’etre.

    • @John “We did deliberately not choose strict. I appeciate that you mightn’t agree but that doesn’t necessarily make it a mistake.”

      Of course you deliberately didn’t choose strict. That’s because there is no software out there (zero, nada, none, zilch) that reads/writes OOXML strict. Not even Microsoft Office, and it’s highly doubtful that it ever will, now that they’ve got their “ISO standard” marketing tool.

  9. @BrownieBoy

    There are always costs incurred in updating software. Licence costs are rarely the largest. Yes, I am sure there was a training burden moving from Office 2003 to Office 2007. IMHO, there was less from 2007 to 2010. I have been using the Office 2013 preview and it is close to Office 2010; much closer than Windows 8 is to Windows 7. These upgrades occur roughly every three years although agencies don’t necessarily adopt them that quickly. LibreOffice is upgraded to a major new version every six months (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LibreOffice#Release_schedule). It’s arguable whether each of these require new training – probably not that much, but the link shows that things change. Interestingly, look at the improvements described in each version at that link. Much is made of the adoption of MS Office features. Whether one likes it or not, there is always going to be pressure to adopt the thing that has the features, not the one that is seeking to copy them.

    On the stack, I could be using MS Office 2011 on my MacBook Air to write this in OOXML – it doesn’t have any other elements of the MS stack. QED?

    • @John,

      It works with Apple too? Well, you should have said so in the first place!

      My only worry was that you were intent on handing over my tax dollars to a super rich American company that indulges in dubious business practices…. ;-)

Comments are closed.