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."