Microsoft wants Office file formats included in UK government open standards push

Microsoft has written an open letter to partners appealing for help in persuading the UK government to include the Open XML (OOXML) formats of Microsoft Office among its officially supported set of open standards for documents.

The software giant is so concerned that its own file formats will not be included in the set of file formats supported for sharing and collaborating with UK government departments that it has submitted an official response to the consultation process, as well as writing an open letter to its partners alerting them to the situation.

In a posting on its UK Partner Network Blog, Microsoft detailed the problem as it perceives it:

“The government proposes to mandate Open Document format [ODF] and exclude the most widely supported and used open standard for document formats, Open XML. We believe this will cause problems for citizens and businesses who use office suites which don’t support ODF, including many people who do not use a recent version of Microsoft Office or, for example, Pages on iOS and even Google Docs.”

However, Microsoft makes it clear that it is not trying to convince the government to substitute OOXML for ODF, but rather mandate the use of both sets of file formats.

“What we are saying is that the government include BOTH Open XML and ODF. To do so offers the most flexibility, the widest compatibility and the lowest total cost of ownership for everyone – government, businesses and citizens alike,” the firm said.

Microsoft does have a valid claim, in that its Office applications are so widely used that it is quite likely that OOXML is by now the most used set of open document standards.

But the move has not gone down well with readers of Microsoft’s blog, with several commenters questioning just how “open” the OOXML standard is when compared with ODF.

“OOXML is about as open and transparent as a black hole. It’s nothing more than a vendor lock-in scam that has run its course,” said one comment.

Microsoft also claims that adoption of OOXML has been more widespread amongst other software products than ODF. While this is also true, a comparison of a list of products supporting OOXML against a list of those supporting ODF shows that many application suites actually support both standards.

The software giant points out in its open letter that it is not requiring its partners to lobby the government on its behalf, but includes a link to the relevant government web site just in case.

“First, we want to make clear that you are not obliged, either by Microsoft or by the government, to do anything or comment in any way. You may be entirely comfortable with the government’s intention and their proposal. It is not our job to change your mind, but we feel we should ensure you are properly appraised [sic] of a situation that may have an impact on your business,” Microsoft said.

The OOXML standards are based on the file formats introduced in Office 2007. However, Office 2007 is not strictly compatible with the published OOXML standards; Office 2010 was the first version of Microsoft Office to be fully compliant.

ODF was developed from the XML file formats used in OpenOffice.org, an open source suite originally developed by Sun Microsystems. It was submitted to and developed by a technical committee in the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards consortium.

Currently the government is trying to reduce its spend on IT wherever possible, with those in the public sector urged to use open source tools if available to help reduce costs.