Reversal: Australian Govt picks ODF doc standard



news In a move which appears to reverse its previous approach based on Microsoft’s file formats, the Australian Government’s central IT decision-making agency appears to have decided that it will standardise its office documents on the Open Document Format going forward.

The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) has been examining office file formats for several years, 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, has claimed 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 in September 2012, AGIMO’s then-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.

However, in a new blog post yesterday, Sheridan — now the Federal Government’s whole of government chief technology officer — noted that a new review of the COE policy had come up with a draft requiring office productivity software used by Australian Government departments and agencies to support version 1.1 of ODF. In evaluating the choice, Sheridan said the Government had taken into account a number of factors.

Firstly, the CTO wrote, the adoption of ODF as “the preferred supported format” was consistent with the aims of the COE policy, namely to ensure that the policy was based on “common standards”, and that where practical, “open standards”.

Sheridan added: “Support for ODF is available from a wide range of office productivity suites across a variety of operating system platforms, in both open-source and proprietary implementations, allowing agencies a great deal of flexibility in selecting a product which conforms to the COE Policy standard. Standardising on a format supported by a wide range of office suites provides for the greatest possible degree of interoperability without mandating the use of a specific product, as well as providing the best basis for reliable interchange of information between agencies deploying differing office productivity suites.”

The CTO noted that the majority of Australian Government agencies currently deployed a version of Microsoft Office, but this did not limit the adoption of ODF as the common format, as versions of Microsoft Office later than Office 2007 SP2 provided native support for ODF.

In addition, Sheridan added: “Support for a format based on an open standard ensures the long-term availability of the data contained in documents produced while eliminating the potential for a vendor ending support for a specific format.”

ODF was also continually developed and updated, the CTO added, and the inclusion of a spreadsheet formula specification in version 1.2 of ODF addressed one of the key factors which had previously limited interoperability between spreadsheet applications in previous versions of the standard. This, coupled with Microsoft Office 2013’s support for the format, meant that formulae contained in spreadsheets could now be reliably transferred between applications, according to Sheridan.

In addition, Sheridan noted that the ODF format may provide greater support for cloud-hosted office productivity suites — such as Googel Docs.

However, the Government has also left the door open for agencies to use existing file formats, such as Microsoft’s Office Open XML. “Defining a common format to be supported by all office productivity suites does not preclude the use of other formats,” wrote Sheridan.

From my point of view, it’s never been a huge issue that AGIMO had standardised on Office Open XML. I wrote the following in February 2012:

“From my perspective, I believe that AGIMO is being too cautious. Frankly, the office productivity wars are over. 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 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, 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.”

However, I must say that standardising on ODF is a very positive move for the Federal Government. I wouldn’t say that it delivers a huge competitive advantage, but it does make a huge amount of sense in the long term with respect to government data storage, and it also displays a great deal of leadership. The potential for this kind of leadership from Sheridan in particular was one reason why I was so enthusiastic to see the executive appointed as CTO last year, and it’s great to see that move already having such a positive move on Federal Government technology strategy.


  1. Your previous post missed the key problem with Microsoft’s formats: they’re awful for phone and tablet users. As the dominance of the PC fades, so goes the dominance of Microsoft Office.

    • +1

      Opening DOCX/XLSX on the tablet is a totally random shot in the dark as to what info you get (or don’t get) and the layout is never correct.

      Maybe if MS released office iOS edition, that might be different, but they simply refuse to let Apple take 25% of the sales revenue

      Like I say to my sales guys, 75% of nothing is still nothing, so pull your head in!

    • Just finished removing all the thin clients and monitors of my employees and replaced them with smartphones. The IT guy said he really needed his (six) screens so I gave him six phones with hdmi output.

      “the key problem with Microsoft’s formats: they’re awful for phone and tablet users.”
      I personally don’t know any phone/tablet user* facing more issues opening MS formats than other formats, rather it’s the other way around.

      *99% Windows/Android so almost no iOS

  2. Good on them, a good step forward especially for Long term storage of documents, now they just need to do the same for there PDF documents use the open standard not the Open Standard + Adobe extras ;)

  3. A few years late, but the correct decision. Trouble is, the open alternative needed this kind of support to flourish back then – AGIMO is a little late to the party.
    Still, it’s a step in the right direction.
    Not sure how OpenOffice nee StarOffice nee LibreOffice is faring these days – Google Docs appears to have eaten this lunch. If it actually has a native format, it’s known only to Google unfortunately.

  4. I couldn’t seem to find any Android apps that can edit ODF. I was using an ods spreadsheet but had to change to xls because there was only a OpenOffice “reader” and nothing to edit the spreadsheet with. If anyone knows of an app that can edit ODF on Android I would be happy to know. That said I think its great that the Government are going in this direction so there is less tie to Microsoft products.

    • Libreoffice has a beta for Android, it will probably be released in the next few months.

  5. I find your previous commentary short sighted, at best. It’s not about how good the solutions are currently. It’s about 1) not storing data in a format that requires users to pay for access to 2) storing data in a format that allows for interoperability.

    It’s nearly like a tax, if your kids are doing work at school and want to be able to read and edit the documents they create when they get home, you have to shell out for a copy of microsoft office.

    And even if I had nothing against that, what about an exit strategy? Any smart business will not tie themselves to a particular vendor, but yet australian government has been tying all their documents containing their IP to a particular vendor, that isn’t even australian.

    I think this new move is an excellent step in the right direction, if not 10 years too late.

  6. Obvious advantages to using Open Office

    – It’s free. Compared to god knows how much for the MS licenses.
    – It’s more user friendly. The text editor and spread sheets have clean basic layouts, compared to MS layouts with dozens upon dozens of buttons and toolbars at the top of your screen.
    – Generating a PDF of your document works perfectly, is built-in and equally free.
    – An ideological one: promoting free open source software.
    – Mobile version rumored to appear at the end of 2013.

    There’s actually a better “flavor” of Open Office, called Libre Office which has fixed a ton of bugs.

    • LibreOffice is also developed by the former developers of OpenOffice. After Sun Microsystems was purchased OpenOffice developers left to form the Open Document Foundation and proceeded to fork OpenOffice forming LibreOffice. Even Oracle’s flavor of Linux uses LibreOffice now.

  7. Pretty cool stuff!
    MS will clearly loose ground in the future of “governmental IT & document processing”
    As for other programs, like Google Docs: In the USA there are already 50+ governments and authorities using Google Apps&Docs for enterprise.
    (But yes, this is also something proprietary)
    LibreOffice will be the future!

  8. This is just fantastic, the next step would be for the Universities across Australia to make the change.

  9. @Renai,

    > However, I must say that standardising on ODF is a very positive move for
    > the Federal Government.

    Glad you think so … now. Because your arguments back in Feb 2012 – basically, Microsoft has won so you better just suck it up – smacked of follow the herd, status quo conformism. Not exactly the “better to die on your feet that live on your knees” outlook that Australians like to pride themselves on.

    On the plus side, that posting was graced by Mr John Sheridan, who took the time to answer many of the questions posted in the comments. I can’t say that I was convinced that he was listening to any of us at the time, but it’s very nice to be proved wrong!

    • +1.

      And I too am in awe of John Sheridan. A senior public servant let came out of his lair to discuss his reasons for doing things to the unwashed, rude masses. It’s a near impossible ask – I imagine he is very much a cog in the machine and so is constrained in what he can say. Still, he did a very good job in explaining why they made the decisions they did.

      I wish it happened far more often.

  10. I think everyone is getting very confused between file format standards and the products used to open them, and the real undercurrent here is that what many of you folks want is Microsoft Office to be killed off due to some grievance you have.

    I’ll happily keep using Microsoft Office, thanks. It works well and I don’t have to worry about you neckbeards telling me to switch from OpenOffice to LibreOffice, or from LibreOffice to whatever the next freaking fork is as the dev community cracks the sads with itself.

  11. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I thinks you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next.

  12. The rationale for standardising our business of ODF was based on data sovgreinity and client choice (OpenOffice / LibreOffice run on Linux, Windows, and Mac operating systems) … the price differential was also nice.

    Regarding Office Open XML, it may be slightly better than the completely proprietary formats that preceeded it, but its primary editor (MS Office**) still doesn’t run all all platforms (and I understand doesn’t always treat all available platforms as equals).

    ** OpenOffice / LibreOffice can edit MS Office format files but it still functions more reliably when working with its native ODF formatted files.

  13. The same document mandates the non-free MPEG2 and MP3 codecs for video and audio.

    It also contains a large number of “Windows best practices” which run counter to best practice of other operating systems, whilst not giving an exemption path for those other operating systems. This is particularly so with software management, which Windows does very poorly, so a hack using VMs is recommended.

    The document also mandates X86-64. I doubt the authors considered that this excludes devices with ARM CPUs (tablets, ChromeBooks, etc).

    There’s also a interesting passage on e-mail, where protocols with plaintext passwords are (presumably unknowingly) recommended.

    My full comments are at

    As usual, these are my views, not those of my employer. I do hope Dept of Finance do correct the flaws with the document because guidance for SOE is a very good idea. But if such guidance become mandatory it does require the issuer to have sufficient knowledge of the world outside of the Windows.

  14. “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.”

    Woolworths, Dick Smith.. unsure how you define enterprise

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