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.