Europe moves towards open source and revises open standards

Portuguese government adopts OpenDocument Format

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According to a press release issued by the Portuguese Open Source Business Association, the government of Portugal has decided to approve a single editable, XML-based document format for use by government, and in public procurement. And that format is not OOXML.

Instead, the Portuguese government has opted for ODF, the OpenDocument Format, as well as PDF and a number of other formats and protocols, including XML, XMPP, IMAP, SMTP, CALDAV and LDAP. The announcement is in furtherance of a law passed by the Portuguese Parliament on June 21 of last year requiring compliance with open standards (as defined in the same legislation) in the procurement of government information systems and when exchanging documents at citizen-facing government websites (an unofficial English translation is here).

While exceptions are permitted under the law in the case of "impossibility," an agency making that contention must report and justify that conclusion, as well as provide a defense of its proposed alternative, to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, whose decision to grant or reject the request is final. All of the foregoing must be posted at a public portal to be provided for that purpose, and if the request is granted, the determination must be periodically revisited thereafter.

The Portuguese decision is reminiscent of a decision (later overruled) taken by the CIO of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2005, which sparked a global standards war between supporters of ODF, developed by OASIS, a global standards consortium, and the Open Office XML Format, created by Microsoft. Shortly after OASIS announced that it would submit ODF to ISO/IEC for adoption, Microsoft contributed OOXML to ECMA, another consortium. In due course, ODF was adopted by Joint Technical Committee 1 as an ISO/IEC standard.

Microsoft sought to achieve the same result, and eventually succeeded after a long and contentious battle that united rivals of Microsoft (e.g., IBM, Oracle, Motorola, Google) with proponents of open source software in opposition to adoption of OOXML by ISO/IEC (I extensively reported on the saga in hundreds of blog entries, which are archived here).

Eventually, the war died down, and much has changed since then. OpenOffice, the best known and most frequently downloaded ODF compliant, open source office suite subsequently forked after Sun Microsystems, the primary supporter of OpenOffice, was acquired by Oracle, which allowed the project to languish. Eventually, OpenOffice found a home at the Apache Foundation. LibreOffice, the fork, is now hosted by a non-profit organization formed in Germany to support it.

And Microsoft, which originally refused to make its Office suite compliant with ODF, eventually acquiesced, although it did not conform completely with the ISO/IEC ODF standard until earlier this year.

Today, ODF has been adopted in many countries around the world (a no longer updated list can be found at the now-dormant website; another compilation exists at what appears to be a (now) sporadically updated page at Wikipedia). But in the great majority of cases, where ODF has been approved for use, so has OOXML. The result has been a victory for software choice, since citizens in these countries can now use their preferred office software to download, edit, and upload government documents at public sector websites. But because both formats (as well as PDF, where fixed text is involved) are both supported at the same sites, these government adoptions have not made much impact on Microsoft’s market share.

Portugal, of course, is not a large country, so its action is not likely to move the market share needle, either. But Europe is another matter, and ODF has many friends in the EU. Many European nations are overhauling their definitions of "open standards," and Microsoft, never the darling of the European Commission, hardly improved its standing when it dropped a browser election screen from Windows 7, thereby violating an earlier ruling in connection with which it had already paid hundreds of millions of Euros in fines (for violating the order, the EC could levy a fine equal to 10% of Microsoft’s global revenues). 

Currently, there is significant momentum in Europe in favor of all things open (standards, source code, data and more). As I have previously noted Neelie Kroes, the EC Competition Commissioner that drove the browser case against Microsoft to its conclusion, is now Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, and remains a staunch advocate of openness. More recently, on November 1, the United Kingdom Cabinet Office held firm (despite vigorous opposition from the Business Software Alliance) and announced new rules that mandate the use of "open standards" in all government IT procurement.

The UK definition requires, among other factors, that vendors must be able to implement such standards without paying licensing fees, and in both open as well as proprietary software. Since Office now supports ODF, that impact would be more muted than dramatic, since Office users today can open ODF files as well as save Office files in ODF format. But those that convert files between Office and LibreOffice or OpenOffice still often encounter formatting glitches. By basing the source file on ODF rather than OOXML, the inconvenience of coping with such glitches moves to the user of Office, and not to the user of the ODF-based suite.

In this context, it will be interesting to see whether the decision of the Portuguese government will prove to be an outlier, or whether other nations in Europe (and elsewhere) opt to follow its lead. At least some Europeans are intent on doing so: a consortium of public administrations, including the Swiss Federal Court, the Swiss canton of Vaud (Waadt), the Swiss Federal IT Steering Unit, and the German cities of Munich, Freiburg and Jena have provided OpenLibre with 160,000 Euros to help iron out OOXML conversion issues for OpenLibre users. Of even greater interest will be what impact, if any, such actions may have on the dominance of Microsoft’s Office suite in the marketplace. 

As of now, that’s hard to tell. It would likely take a new alliance of Microsoft’s competitors and openness advocates to mount the kind of assault that could seriously challenge the 30 year dominance of Office in the marketplace, and that’s rather hard to imagine.

Except, of course, for the fact that until Massachusetts took the same action in 2005, such an unlikely alliance was pretty hard to imagine as well.

Originally posted on The Standards Blog. Reposted with permission. All rights reserved.

About the author

Andy Updegrove - Andy helps CEOs, management teams, and their investors build successful organizations. Regionally, he’s been a pioneer in providing business-minded legal counsel and strategic advice to high-tech companies since 1979. On the global stage, he’s represented, and usually helped launch, more than 135 worldwide standard setting, open source, promotional and advocacy consortia, including some of the largest and most influential standard setting organizations in the world. His clients of both types