AGIMO faces down Office standard critics

AGIMO faces down Office standard critics

Summary: The Federal Government's peak IT strategy group has been forced to defend its decision to standardise the public sector on a Microsoft-focused office document standard, as online commentators used the weekend to slam the group for what they saw as a lack of vision regarding rival open standards.

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The Federal Government's peak IT strategy group has been forced to defend its decision to standardise the public sector on a Microsoft-focused office document standard, as online commentators used the weekend to slam the group for what they saw as a lack of vision regarding rival open standards.

Last week, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) published its Common Operating Environment Policy, which contains a number of guidelines restricting how departments and agencies should allow users to access their desktops. One key item saw AGIMO require departments and agencies use Microsoft's Office Open XML format.

However, most alternative office suites cannot write documents in the standard. The OpenDocument Format (ODF) Alliance, which is supporting a rival format, claimed last year that the Office Open XML format was riddled with "Windows-platform dependencies" and essentially tied users to Microsoft Office. 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.

On Friday last week, AGIMO noted in a blog post that its policy was now complete, but it wanted to re-open the debate about the issue, as this might inform future policies. The result was a sea of criticism directed at the agency for its decision to use Office Open XML instead of the rival ODF format.

"The document, at least in my opinion, appears to be very Microsoft-centric, either because the writers only had experience with Microsoft Windows or for some other reason," wrote one commenter, Stephen Norman.

"Looks like you've also been sucked in by the 'OOXML is the only format that is compatible with all the legacy documents out there' marketing line. This basically translates into 'we've kept all the implementation bugs from every version of Microsoft Office and codified them into a published specification document'," wrote another, Bruce Williams.

Many commentators highlighted the fact that there were in fact multiple standards under the Office Open XML umbrella, including the ECMA-376 format and the strict and transitional versions of the ISO/IEC 29500 format. In addition, not all versions of Microsoft Office supported the varying formats, as a comparison table produced by AGIMO on the matter demonstrated.

However, almost all office suites do support the ODF format promulgated by organisations associated with the OpenOffice.org suite.

"Why on earth would you not select the OpenDocument standard?" wrote one commentator. "It is an XML format; it is an OASIS standard; it is an ISO/IEC standard (26300:2006 Open Document Format for Office Applications) and, most importantly, it is vendor neutral. Have you read the FMA Act and Regulations? Have you read the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines? Have you not heard of the phrase 'vendor lock in'?"

In response, AGIMO first assistant secretary John Sheridan consistently noted that AGIMO's job in writing the policy was not to support a vision of open standards, but in fact to address interoperability with what it already had — "not to choose a more perfect standard and then move 265,000 PCs to it".

AGIMO's research prior to writing the policy had shown that more than 99.5 per cent of government PCs were based on Windows, with more than 86 per cent using Microsoft Office. IBM's Lotus Symphony was the runner up with just under 13 per cent usage.

Agencies also noted that they were solely planning to upgrade to Microsoft software in future — Windows 7, Office 2007 and Office 2010. "No other office productivity suites were identified," wrote Sheridan. "The results of this survey highlighted that the majority of agencies are already using or planning to upgrade to the standards identified in the [Common Operating Environment] policy."

Topics: Government, Government AU, Microsoft, Open Source

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9 comments
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  • From what I saw of the ODF standard for spreadsheets, it basically had an XML shell with whatever content structure the application programmers wanted inside. It is not a 'perfect standard'.

    Of course, MS Office is more than just static documents. I personally have programmed many Excel spreadsheets to talk directly to backend databases, be part of project management workflows, et al. All of those would need to be completely redesigned if going to another office suite. Like many enterprises, changing to any other office suite would be a very, very expensive undertaking.

    Any standard defining internal formats is either going to:
    a. stifle innovation because it cannot change fast enough with technology, or
    b. be ignored so technology advances can be used more quickly.
    For archiving, I think only lossless images should be stored. They are far easier to batch upgrade when more efficient formats become available.
    Any document with any complexity is likely to be unconvertable without a lot of manual intervention, something that does not scale to millions or billions of documents. ODF or whatever other standard is not going to make that ANY easier.
    Patanjali
  • "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." --George Santayana.
    I remember very well the Australian Government Departments banning the use of personal computers for wordprocessing and how, out of frustration with typing pools, we used spreadsheets to write our reports.
    We are now entering a era when the smart phone/tablet apps, social networking and cloud computing will sweep away the need for those quaint Office Suites.
    And as we discovered the last time around, this kind of backward looking standardisation will only make the takeover by the disruptive technologies that much faster.
    svegress
  • AGIMO and security in OOXML - are you really sure?
    The following quote is from Microsoft itself in relation to cryptographic security (or REAL LIMITATIONS to it) in the ECMA (OOXML) standard:
    4.3.1 ECMA-376 Document Encryption
    Office [ECMA-376] document encryption using standard encryption does not support cipher block chaining, and does not have a provision for detecting corruption, though a block cipher (specifically AES) is not known to be subject to bit-flipping attacks. ECMA-376 documents using agile encryption are required to use cipher block chaining and corruption detection, and are not subject to the issues noted for standard encryption.

    Well - given the age of Wikileaks I can but hope that our Federal Government is doing better than that for its vital inter-agency and departmental documents!
    caelli
  • I'm a public servant by name (and blogger by night), but speaking personally in this comment.

    I don't think this is a 'one standard to rule them all' kind of issue.

    AGIMO is taking the pragmatic approach. Based on current agency environments and their migration plans, the selected standard is appropriate across government.

    It is necessary for government to be able to share information internally and therefore it makes sense for agencies to all head in a similar direction.

    It would take enormous investment to change that overall direction - in technical resources, training and culture change - and at this point in time it would not be easy for the public service to get a mandate for it from politicians.

    If you want to see a change in the overall IT direction of the government, start by convincing the public that IT is sufficiently critical to justify the level of political will, investment and coordination to turn the ship in a new direction.

    Once the public support is evident, political support becomes possible, then once endorsed and funded, the public service can execute.

    You may even get some major corporations to follow.

    Cheers,

    Craig
    Craigthomler
  • This is an extremely backward-facing standard. I know that it isn't saying that you can't use other software but it's saying that document interchange needs to be using a MS Office 2007 format (it's discontinued/chagned in 2010 but the policy hasn't acknowledged that).

    My concern is that with the plethora of portable devices, iPads, Smartphones and devices which rely upon cloud-based computing, it would make sense to support the simple and common document format used by most of these devices; ODF.

    The current standard suggests that if someone writes a report using an IPAD or Android device, they have to take it to their computer and re-save it using Office 2007 before they can exchange it with other departments.

    That's simply ridiculous!
    gavin.bollard@...
  • I see no point is adopting a "Microsoft standard", because like IBM, Microsoft's "standards" are subject to change without notice and very rarely incorporate any form of foresight. At least with HTML tagging, you can invent and insert new tags that an old reader can either ignore or display the actual tag.

    I cannot understand why anyone implementing a new system would even consider anything beyond ODF: It's internationally recognised and FREE to use. Patanjali's argument (#1) holds up very well when you are using an already established standard and face the costs of converting to a new one.
    Treknology
  • The differences between the OpenDocument standard, and the Microsoft Office document standard are not as major as people (typically on the web) like to make them out to be.

    Wow ZIP (compressed) XML files, with other resources (images, etc). Microsoft have been doing something very similar since their very early .HLP file format.

    If they want a 'real' document format they would be arguing over the lack of PostScript in file-format, not two 'extremely similar' XML document standards, that are both 'open' and 'well defined'.

    OpenOffice.org [Oracle], and LibreOffice [The Document Foundation], being the 'new' version since the Oracle take over of Sun Microsystems, do not hold a candle to Microsoft Office 2007, let alone Office 2010.

    Which, also over a 3 to 5 year period (often longer) pay for themselves relative to competing products.

    'Open Source' is almost always a decade behind when it comes to 'innovation' (which is Open Source speak for 'copying what Microsoft have done with the GUI, using 10 times the memory and 5 times the processor power).

    Open-API's and Open-Document standards should never be confused with Open-Source. It will just lose you respect within Government circles.


    If Europe want to keep destroying their own economy like a stack of domino's (first Greece, now Portugal) that is their business - Australia should not follow suit in their madness and counter-productive behaviour.

    It's worse than typical bureaucratic red tape, it really is!

    God look at what is happening to Java! (the language OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice is coded in) The whole thing is just a political nightmare. No other language has politics at its root like Java does.


    Microsoft Word (in a 32-bit Win32 environment) peaks at under 34 MB memory consumption while loading, with a private working set that OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice can't hold a candle to: Under 10 MB, thus with over 23 MB shareable with other running processes, with under 13K Page Faults (none of them Hard Faults) upon loading.

    You want to 'benchmark' that against a competing product?, Go ahead.

    In a 'fair and open manner' Microsoft Office 'should' win every tender for *very* valid technical reasons, the only time it would not win is if the tender is so budget constrained that they can't see how it pays for itself within 3 to 5 years (1,095 to 1,825 days). In which case they've made grave errors in their judgement, benchmarking and possibly tender process(es).

    Not to mention with bulk licensing they get GREAT deals on the suite, or individual products required for Commercial or Government / Enterprise use.

    The licence need not follow an employee, so the resourcefulness is also fantastic. (PC, User, Pool, negotiated agreement, etc).

    Microsoft Office:
    - DOES NOT require a RUNTIME ENVIRONMENT to execute in!
    - Nor does OpenOffice.org, but it uses one anyway, which just adds to the bloat.

    Before you even look at the feature set comparison Microsoft Office has already won the battle.

    Training costs & availability: Microsoft Office wins again.


    Where exactly is 'OpenOffice.org' (which is now 'owned' by Oracle), and it's forked cousin 'LibreOffice' (The Document Foundation) winning this 'war of the office suites?'

    They fail at basic integration and resource consumption is nothing but horrendous.

    Not leveraging the Microsoft Office 'schooling' that millions of Australians are *still* getting 'right now' is borderline criminal - it will cost far more tax payer dollars to train them in something else.


    The number one reason to use Microsoft Office is cost - seriously it *is* cost. It pays for itself much faster than 'so called free' alternatives.

    Any report claiming otherwise does not factor in the minimum cost of a persons time.
    scott2010au
  • The most 'open' read only document standard is, always has been, and always will be: [drum roll]....

    PostScript.

    Yes, good old PostScript.

    Failing that Adobe PDF - it is universally readable on (almost) every device and well supported under Apple Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and handheld devices (including the Apple iPhone and Apple iPad).

    Due to their design PostScript and PDF documents will always render the same, or 'same enough', on a page for page basis.

    Other documents may be 500 pages using one 'renderer' and 750 pages using another.


    XML documents standards were a giant joke, the very idea is technically flawed.

    Sadly no-one is alive who remembers how to implement PDF or PostScript correctly any more. (And trust me: XML document standards will be in the same boat, just worse due to extensibility madness creating 'document bloat' in under 30 years).
    scott2010au
  • @Scott2010au
    Hmm.... This guy looks like a real techy!
    He claims that OpenOffice.org is coded in Java!!
    syampillai