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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.

Lundell's research has shown that maintenance and support contracts for proprietary licensed software typically run for up to 10 years. But public sector organisations often need to preserve and modify their software systems and digital assets for more than 30 years, he said. This implies that documents outlive proprietary software in any maintenance scenario, he said.

"Software used for the initial creation of documents will not be available during the complete life-cycle for many systems, both for public sector organisations and companies," he said. For this reason it is essential that public sector organisations only use document formats for which there are effective open source software implementations — as they can then, if necessary, pay anyone to maintain or support the software, while ongoing support for proprietary, commercial software remains under the control of its developer.

This does not mean that only open source software can be used, but it is essential that there exist effective open source software alternatives that can read and write all file formats used in the public sector, should commercial providers discontinue support, he said.

"In contrast with the situation for ODF, there is today unfortunately no open source project that provides effective support for the ISO standard 29500, strict OOXML," he said.

One reason for that could be that the standard itself is insufficient to create applications that can reliably exchange files with one another. A study conducted by Europe Economics for the European Commission in 2012, Guidelines for Public Procurement of ICT Goods and Services, found: "The technical specifications of this ISO standard include references to proprietary technology and brand names of specific products. Further, the specification of this ISO standard is not complete (i.e. the technical specification contains references to an external web site (www.microsoft.com) which refers to web pages that are not currently available."

For Lundell, picking a format that cannot be opened or created by a range of applications is not a good option. And, he said, "Given that Microsoft supports ODF, why use something else?"

 

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