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Government plan to adopt ODF file format sparks standards debate in UK

Loek Essers | April 4, 2014
The U.K. is moving to a system where citizens can exchange information with the government digitally by default -- but in choosing the file formats to use for that exchange, it must balance corporate interests with those of citizens.

The U.K. is moving to a system where citizens can exchange information with the government digitally by default — but in choosing the file formats to use for that exchange, it must balance corporate interests with those of citizens.

The recommendation of HTML for browser-based editable text and PDF as the default for non-editable documents is uncontroversial, as they can both be read on most computer platforms.

However, when it comes to exchanging drafts of documents between government departments, or between government and citizens or suppliers, the choice of an editable file format is proving more controversial.

An interministerial body, the Cabinet Office, is now evaluating comments on its proposal to adopt Open Document Format (ODF) as the standard for sharing documents with and within the government.

The goal of the Cabinet Office was to identify document standards that do not impose costs on users, and in which text, spreadsheets and presentations could be edited on different devices without loss of integrity. It also wanted to avoid tying users to a particular vendor.

Among the reasons it gave for selecting ODF were the availability of compatible applications, including open source implementations, for devices running Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, iOS and Android, with some web-based applications also able to read and write files in the format. ODF 1.1 is now an international standard, ISO/IEC 26300, and the ODF 1.2 specification under development by OASIS, an industry standards body, is expected to be adopted by ISO in due course.

The Cabinet Office's choice didn't please Microsoft U.K. National Technology Officer Mark Ferrar, who made a counterproposal urging adoption of the OOXML format alongside ODF.

"Microsoft believes that the least cost and most effective way forward for any organisation seeking to ensure the maximum range of interoperability, the richest range of functionality and the widest use of common formats should be to embrace multiple open standard document formats," he wrote.

The term OOXML has been used to refer to a number of related but distinct file formats. The first was the native file format for Microsoft Office 2007, which became, with modifications, the ECMA-376 industry standard.

This, in turn, became the basis of the international standard ISO/IEC 29500:2008. The ISO standard is split into four parts, three of them defining the "strict" parts of the format while the fourth defines so-called "transitional" features used to describe legacy documents created in older versions of Microsoft Word. ECMA International adopted the strict parts of ISO/IEC 29500 as ECMA-376 edition 2.

The standard Ferrar proposes the U.K. government adopt is ISO/IEC 29500:2012, a still newer version.

Confusingly, a wordprocessor document with the file extension for OOXML, .docx, could contain any one of these formats, and different versions of Microsoft Word vary in their ability to open or save them.

 

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